Building projects, adding capacity still priority as MCPS enrollment dips

School board says building projects still a priority as enrollment tails off

Superintendent anticipates rebound in students later, recommends adding more space

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Despite the first enrollment decrease in more than a decade, Montgomery County Public Schools leaders said Monday they’ll continue to pursue building projects because they expect students to return once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides.

During a school board work session, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith recommended several changes to the school district’s six-year capital improvement program (CIP) — a $3.7 million increase to the $1.8 billion plan.

The recommended changes include completing some projects earlier than anticipated and adding funding for projects across the district, like HVAC improvements and reroofing. Other recommendations are a new elementary school in the Silver Spring area and three boundary studies.

MCPS’ enrollment in pre-kindergarten through 12th grade this year is down 3,684 students, according to school district data — from 165,267 to 161,583

About 1,000 fewer students are enrolled in pre-K this year. Much of the rest of the decrease is in the elementary school grades.

MCPS’ enrollment is used to calculate how much funding the county government must provide annually. It is also used to create the school district’s construction plan.

MCPS enrollment projections show enrollment growing to 170,761 students by the 2026-27 academic year, even accounting for this year’s decrease, officials said Monday.

Smith said he expects many students who withdrew for homeschooling or private schools to return when MCPS returns to in-person instruction.

“Therefore, the capacity projects included in the adopted CIP, based on pre-pandemic projections, are still warranted and must remain on their approved schedules,” said Adrienne Karamihas, director of MCPS’ Division of Capital Planning.

Smith added that MCPS has “an incredibly good track record of care for our buildings and we never want to lose that.”

“Once you lose that, you really start declining quickly,” Smith said.

Before this academic year, MCPS’ enrollment grew, on average, about 2,500 students each of the past 10 school years. The steady growth has caused severe crowding problems at many schools as MCPS struggled to secure funding to build additions and new schools.

Many of the proposed CIP amendments were recommended in an “attempt to maximize resources,” according to MCPS Associate Superintendent of Operations Essie McGuire.

“Where we have made reductions to the scope or sequence of projects, we are intentionally using those resources to support projects within the system,” McGuire said.

An example, she said, is a proposal to ditch a boundary study for two elementary schools in the Bethesda area and start a new one including a third school.

Last year, MCPS began 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.

But as the pandemic strains local and state budgets, Smith last week released a recommendation proposing MCPS ditch the boundary study and start over, this time including Bethesda Elementary School.

The proposal includes axing a proposed $16.7 million addition at Bethesda Elementary School. MCPS would continue with the $4.4 million addition at Westbrook and conduct a boundary study to determine how to reassign students from Bethesda and Somerset to Westbrook.

The proposed CIP changes presented to the school board on Monday were:

• In alignment with the recommendation to restart and expand the boundary study for elementary schools in Bethesda, Smith recommended removing the $16.7 million addition at Bethesda Elementary School and reallocating $4.4 million for the addition at Westbrook Elementary School. The Westbrook addition would be completed in September 2023.

• Reduce the scope of a building project at Silver Spring International Middle School, and reallocate $16 million from the project to an addition at Highland View Elementary School. The completion date would be September 2024 for the Silver Spring International project and 2025 for Highland View.

• To accommodate increasing enrollment at JoAnn Leleck Elementary School, the school board previously approved addition projects at Cresthaven and Roscoe Nix elementary schools. But the cost of the two projects is “approaching the cost of building a new school,” Karamihas said, so Smith on Tuesday recommended ditching the addition projects to instead build a new elementary school. The new school would accommodate third through fifth grade, with a completion date of September 2025. A site selection process would begin in the spring of 2021.

• To address ballooning enrollment at William Tyler Page Elementary School, Smith recommended accelerating an addition project, moving its completion date from September 2025 to September 2023. Page’s enrollment is expected to be about 300 more than the school was built to hold by the last year of the CIP.

• Moving up the completion of “major” projects for three schools: South Lake, Stonegate and Woodlin elementary schools. All three would be completed in September 2023.

• Add $5 million for HVAC improvements, $3.2 million for “planned life cycle asset replacement projects” and $1 million for roof replacement projects in Fiscal Year 2022.

• Complete the Westbrook, Somerset and Bethesda elementary schools boundary study in November 2021.

• To align with the completion of an addition at DuFief Elementary School, intended to relieve crowding at Rachel Carson Elementary School, a boundary study is proposed for the two schools, to begin in the spring of 2022. The school board would take final action in November 2022.

• To align with the completion of a new elementary school in Clarksburg, a boundary study is proposed to begin in the spring of 2022. The school board would take final action in November 2022.

If all of the projects included in the CIP are completed on schedule, MCPS would add space for 14,718 additional students by 2026, according to school board documents. Space for about 4,400 students would be added in elementary schools, 1,600 at middle schools and 8,700 at high schools.

The school board will hold another work session about the CIP on Thursday. Public hearings are scheduled for Nov. 2, 5 and 17.

A school board work session is scheduled for Nov. 17, with final action on Nov. 19. The Montgomery County Council will then review the CIP, with a final vote expected in May.

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

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