2016 | Schools

Montgomery County, School System Officials Examine Putting Schools in Vacant Office Buildings

Work group made up of multiple county agencies and PTA representatives produced cost estimate for one such project in Walter Johnson High School cluster

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It would cost between $59 million and $65 million to buy a local vacant office building and repurpose it as a new school, according to a multi-agency work group set up by Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS).

The group included officials from MCPS, the county government and Planning Department, plus PTA representatives and architects from Samaha, the Virginia-based firm the school system has used for many school construction projects, including an addition at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

The group, which according to its final report was spurred to action by public concerns about the school system’s rapidly growing student population, met six times last year.

Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers is expected to present the group’s report to the Board of Education at 11:10 a.m. Tuesday for a discussion.

Among the findings in the report is the cost estimate of putting a school in a five-story, approximately 150,000-square-foot vacant office building in the Walter Johnson cluster.

The report said it didn’t identify the building “due to concerns that any estimate of costs could affect the valuation of the property,” though in an appendix to the report, the vacant Capital Gateway Rock Spring Park building at 6700 Rockledge Drive was the only one of nine vacant office buildings listed that fit the description.

Members of the group examined what it would take to put a 900-seat middle school in the building and found that it would cost about $40 million to buy the building, based on the last time it was sold and its most recent property assessment.

The group reported it would cost between $18 million and $23 million to repurpose the building, including clearing it of existing divisions between offices, building classrooms and upgrading systems to comply with educational and code requirements. Design costs were estimated at about $1.5 million and the conversion to a school building didn’t include a gym, cafeteria or outdoor facilities that would add to the cost.

“Total cost of purchasing the building and repurposing it for classrooms totals approximately $59 to $65 million. While all these cost projections are preliminary figures, they are higher than the $53.8 million that is programmed for Clarksburg/Damascus Middle School which is opening in August 2016 with a capacity for 965 students,” the report concluded, adding that the cost is likely higher because the building is a Class A office building.

Two members of the group, Samaha architect Paul Falkenbury and Planning Department urban designer Paul Mortensen, presented seven examples of schools in repurposed office buildings around the country, including the Bailey’s Upper Elementary School that opened in 2014 in former Class B office building in Falls Church, Virignia.

The group’s final report examined that project in particular detail. Fairfax County Public Schools retrofitted the five-story former office building to serve students in grades three to five to help relieve overcrowding at the original Bailey’s Elementary School.

“The decision to repurpose this vacant office building for a school reflected a convergence of the need for school capacity—the original Grades preK–5 school enrolled 1,300 students with 19 relocatable classrooms—and the availability of a vacant, affordable office building in the same service area as the existing school,” the MCPS report concluded. “In all cases, the examples responded to situations where more traditional, suburban school design on more ample sites was not an option.”

School overcrowding has been a growing concern as MCPS has grown by more than 2,000 students annually over the past few years to its highest-ever enrollment of more than 165,000 students.

In October, Bowers raised the ideas of redrawing school boundaries between the Gaithersburg, Col. Zadok Magruder and Thomas S. Wootton high school clusters to relieve overcrowding in Gaithersburg schools and opening former county schools now being used for other purposes—including the former Woodward High School in North Bethesda.

Meanwhile, the county’s Planning Department has found that filling some of the vacant and mostly-vacant office buildings in suburban-style office parks isn’t likely to happen and is considering new zoning and land-use guidelines for the Rock Spring office park that’s home to the building the working group examined.

The working group’s final report said parents and staff could be concerned about safety and a lack of athletic fields at schools put in former office buildings. The report suggested those types of schools “may be more acceptable” as special program or charter schools that students choose to attend “as opposed to schools with fixed boundaries that students are required to attend.”