County Council members on Monday agreed that they’re in a bind when it comes to school construction: Even if they fully fund a $1.83 billion capital plan for Montgomery County Public Schools, they’ll barely be keeping up with anticipated enrollment growth.
“This couldn’t be more indicative of what our challenge is,” council member Craig Rice said Monday during the council’s education committee meeting. “By us fully funding and giving you everything you need, which would be near impossible for us to do … it still keeps us just even.”
Council staff noted the school system’s capital proposal is about $79.1 million higher than the county executive’s recommended plan. Council members asked MCPS leaders to help them close the gap and prioritize projects in the lineup.
School Board President Michael Durso agreed to take up the assignment in coming weeks.
The Montgomery County school board in November approved a capital plan that includes 30 projects to add school capacity, altogether creating another 10,365 seats for students.
On Monday, MCPS staff explained that about 11,000 students of the system’s total enrollment of nearly 162,000 students are now in relocatable classrooms because of space deficits in school buildings. On top of that, they expect student enrollment will grow by nearly 10,000 students over the next six years, the lifespan of the capital plan currently under discussion.
“So the situation will be the same or possibly worse” in six years, council member Marc Elrich said.
James Song, MCPS director of facilities management, said he hoped it would be the same.
Council members on Monday gave preliminary approval to some parts of the MCPS capital plan and deferred decisions about other items to a Feb. 26 meeting. They agreed to continue paying for projects that are currently under construction and remove construction funding for addition projects at Burtonsville Elementary and Judith A. Resnick Elementary schools, as suggested by the school board. They also voted in preliminary support of continuing to fund eight countywide systemic projects, focused on areas such as asbestos abatement and improving safe access to schools. The education committee gave an initial sign-off to several other elements of the proposed capital improvements plan.
The council said state aid in funding school construction will be essential if the county is to avoid falling behind on providing capacity and repairing aging buildings. From fiscal year 2007 through 2018, the state has furnished MCPS with about 17 percent of its school construction funding, while the county has provided about 83 percent, according to school system staff.
The council members on Monday also listened to an overview about how the MCPS student population is expected to change in the coming years.
Adrienne Karamihas, acting director of capital planning for MCPS, said increases at the elementary level have evened out in recent years, while enrollment is climbing at the high school level.
Over the past decade, the number of students eligible to receive free and reduced-price meals—through a program known as FARMS—has gone up by about nearly 20,000, or about 64 percent. Of the 55,000 students who are in FARMS, 82 percent qualified to receive completely free meals because of their family income levels, she said.
Council member Nancy Navarro said this data underscores that county leaders need to pay attention to where the student growth is occurring and design their policies and laws accordingly.
“We’ve had this challenge for a long time, this notion that Montgomery County is perceived as being homogeneous, very wealthy,” she said.
Bethany Rodgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.