School Overcrowding Dominates Discussion at Candidates Forum

School Overcrowding Dominates Discussion at Candidates Forum

Parents press four of six school board candidates

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An audience member reviews election material at a school board candidate's forum Tuesday.

Douglas Tallman

School overcrowding was a major topic at a forum Tuesday night for Montgomery County Board of Education candidates held in the Luxmanor neighborhood in North Bethesda.

“Overcrowding has been done to us,” parent Jim Bradley of Parkside told candidates running for seats in the Nov. 8 nonpartisan election.

About 60 people attended the forum, at Trinity Lutheran Church on Old Georgetown Road, which drew four of the six candidates running for school board. Brandon Rippeon of Darnestown didn’t attend. School board President Michael Durso represented Rippeon’s opponent in the District 2 race, incumbent Rebecca Smondrowski of Gaithersburg.

In the other races, Anjali Reed Phukan of Silver Spring is seeking an open District 4 seat against Shebra Evans, a Silver Spring financial analyst who is active with the PTA. Jeannette Dixon, a former Paint Branch High School principal, is running against incumbent Phil Kauffman of Olney for an at-large seat.

Nearly all of the parents at the forum said they were connected to Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, either with children who attend the school, or with elementary and middle school children who will eventually attend the high school.

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith released a plan to relieve crowding throughout the cluster earlier this month, recommending the construction of school additions and use of portable classrooms and disappointing parents who were looking for new schools to be built.

Smith’s plan called for more study on what to do about the old Woodward High School, which now houses Tilden Middle School while that school is being renovated. Once Tilden moves out in 2020, some Walter Johnson parents want Woodward reopened to relieve crowding at Walter Johnson. According to Montgomery County Public Schools, WJ has an enrollment of 2,304. That’s just under its capacity of 2,335, but enrollment is expected to exceed capacity next year, and for years to come.

Parent Ed Farber noted the MCPS budget of nearly $2.5 billion, which should mean the school system should have more long-range thinking. “Where will they be in five years? I don’t think we have that creativity,” he said.

The forum resembled “speed dating.” The audience divided into small groups to pepper each candidate with concerns. After about 10 minutes with one group, a candidate would then rotate to the next group.

Candidates in district races are required to live in the district they hope to serve. Voters, however, get to choose candidates in each race.

“I haven’t heard a lot about an elementary school,” said Sharon Watts, PTA president of Ashburton Elementary School. Built to hold 651 students, Ashburton’s enrollment is 905, and parents have been pushing for MCPS to relieve the overcrowding by building a new school.

“We need to build. We need to fix,” another parent said.

Several candidates suggested the county deserves more money from the state. Phukan told parents she wanted to conduct an audit of the school system’s finances if elected. She said she wanted to shake the hand of every MCPS employee just in case “fictitious employees” are on the books.

Durso said Fairfax County, Virginia, opened a school this year in an empty office building. He suggested Montgomery County could experiment with moving specific programs into an office setting. An MCPS report in January found the cost of purchasing an empty office building in the Walter Johnson cluster to cost more than a new middle school in the Clarksburg-Damascus area.

Dixon said the school board should not agree to contracts with employees that can’t be funded. Recent contracts have fallen short of negotiated raises.

Evans said she favored equity in schools. “Equity is not everybody having the same, but every school having what they need for those children in that building to be able to achieve,” she said.

Kauffman said he didn’t believe the school system should shift resources from wealthier clusters on the west side of the county to other clusters with more economically disadvantaged students on the east side.

“I don’t think that is an appropriate solution,” he said. “I think we have to look at what do we need at a minimum for all our students to be successful in all of our schools.”

Candidates at Tuesday's school board forum. From left, Anjali Reed Phukan, Shebra Evans, Jeannette Dixon, Luxmanor Citizens Association President Abbe Milstein (at microphone), Jordan Cooper (standing, the moderator), incumbent Phil Kauffman and school board President Michael Durso, who was standing in for Rebecca Smondrowski.

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