2020 | Schools

MCPS considering starting over on boundary study for elementary schools in Bethesda

Superintendent hopes to spend less money, but address more problems

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After spending nearly a year completing a boundary study for some elementary schools in Bethesda, Montgomery County Public Schools might ditch the study and start a new one as the COVID-19 pandemic strains local and state budgets.

In November, the school board authorized a boundary study to explore ways to relieve crowding at Somerset Elementary School in Chevy Chase.

MCPS planned to construct a classroom addition at nearby Westbrook Elementary School in Bethesda and conduct a boundary study to move some students from Somerset to Westbrook.

This week, Superintendent Jack Smith released his recommendation, which includes scrapping the boundary study and starting a new one that includes Bethesda Elementary School.

“Due to the fiscal constraints that impacted the recently adopted CIP, and the anticipation of continued fiscal constraints for the next CIP, it was important for me also to evaluate possible opportunities that would take advantage of existing capacity for schools that may be overutilized,” Smith wrote in a memo to the school board. “Therefore … I examined adjacent overutilized schools to determine if the available capacity at Westbrook Elementary School could address the needs of more than one elementary school.”

Bethesda Elementary School, with boundaries adjacent to Somerset, is also too crowded.

According to MCPS data, Bethesda Elementary has an enrollment of about 670 students and is built to hold 560.

The school district previously planned to build a $16.7 million addition at Bethesda Elementary, but the project was delayed to 2025 “due to fiscal constraints,” Smith wrote.

Smith is recommending that MCPS forego the Bethesda Elementary project and build the $4.4 million addition at Westbrook. Then, MCPS would conduct a boundary study to determine how to reassign students from Bethesda and Somerset elementary schools to Westbrook.

Westbrook has space for about 222 students. The addition would make space for about 70 additional students.

Smith wrote that he hopes the addition could be completed by September 2023.

Somerset, on Warwick Place, is projected to have about 80 more students than its maximum capacity by 2026. Because it is on a small 3.7-acre site, there is little room for the school district to place temporary classrooms to accommodate the crowding.

The new boundary study, if approved by the school board, would begin in the spring, with final boundary changes adopted in November 2021.

Smith suggested that student reassignments be completed in two phases, beginning before the addition is completed, in 2022.

Smith also acknowledged that MCPS’ enrollment this year decreased for the first time in 13 years, which has raised questions about whether pursuing building projects should be a priority for the school district.

“I anticipate that the student enrollment will rebound in the future,” Smith wrote. “Therefore, the capacity projects that were approved based on pre-pandemic enrollment projections still will be considered necessary.”

The school board will review Smith’s recommendation during a meeting on Monday.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com