Montgomery parents tell school officials that upgrades can’t wait

Parents from across Montgomery County have delivered a strong message in public hearings focused on fixing the suburban district’s deteriorating and overcrowded schools: More needs to be done than is outlined in the school system’s $1.55 billion proposal.

More than 400 people showed up at meetings during two days last week in Rockville, bringing small children, big signs and detailed stories about leaky roofs, schoolyards crammed with portable classrooms and building enrollments above capacity.

It was the beginning of a budget debate about school construction in the fast-growing school system.

PTA leader Hollie Taylor, one of nearly 60 who testified, said that the temperamental heating system at Cloverly Elementary School in Silver Spring had broken down on a day set aside for Maryland’s standardized exams, the MSAs.

Students took their exams bundled up in hats, gloves and jackets, she said. “It’s an unacceptable way to take a test,” Taylor said.

The hearings came two weeks after Superintendent Joshua P. Starr proposed a construction plan that seeks to build five new schools and 22 classroom additions during the next six years. With Montgomery’s enrollment surging, Starr has said its schools are “bursting at the seams.”

But Starr’s plan also would delay 20 school revitalization projects by one to two years.

Parents said that the plan leaves too many needs unmet. Many testified that their children’s schools had already endured construction postponements.

Janette Gilman, president of the countywide council of PTAs, told board members that in previous years, parents accepted that the strains of the recession had left the district with tough choices about school construction.

“This year is different from all other years because tonight, although we support what is in the [plan], we will not accept all that has been left out,” Gilman said, adding that the group opposes “a bottom line that shortchanges our students with delays and trade-offs.”

Parents believe the district can no longer force choices “between equally critical projects,” she said.

Starr has said that meeting all of Montgomery’s construction needs would require a $2.2 billion proposal, which he considered financially irresponsible. If the county gets extra state funding, officials might be able to restore the previous timetable for delayed projects, he said.

County leaders announced Oct. 31 that they will be pressing the Maryland legislature and Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) for funding of a major school construction package in 2014, similar to one Baltimore received this year.

In schools across the county, the need is unmistakable, parents and students said.

Morgan Johnson, president of the Student Government Association at Damascus High School, brought a piece of the school’s tennis court to a hearing last Monday.

“This is a chunk of a court that I was supposed to play on this season,” she told the school board, saying the debris was a symbol of “what is happening outside and inside of my school.”

In a physics room, the ceiling is so leaky that buckets are placed under broken ceiling tiles when it rains, she said. In a basement area where math is taught, students have encountered an “impressive cockroach population,” she said, adding that students “have even given them names.”

PTA dad Paul Geller brought a prop, too, testifying Thursday with a wooden replica of a locker at Rosa Parks Middle School. He brought his son’s backpack — demonstrating that there is no way it could fit into the 8-inch-wide opening of the school’s lockers.

Poolesville High School families, who turned out in large numbers, took issue with another delay in plans to rebuild the 60-year-old high school. Several pointed out that the cafeteria is designed for a fraction of the more than 1,200 students who attend, many of whom sit on hallway floors to each lunch.

“Would you like to eat lunch on the floor of hallways that are traveled by more than 1,200 people each day?” middle school student Grace Clark asked the board. “That’s more than 2,400 shoes and boots tracking dirt and mud into the school.”

Board President Christopher S. Barclay addressed several students who questioned why Montgomery — one of the most affluent counties in the nation — does not have more money for its schools. “We have more need than we have money,” Barclay said.

School officials are scheduled to vote on Starr’s proposal at a board meeting Monday. The issue then goes to county officials.

Steve Augustino, a longtime countywide PTA leader who follows capital improvement issues, said the debate underscored “the toughest year I’ve seen in terms of the gap between what is needed and what is being offered” in Starr’s proposal.

Donna St. George writes about education, with an emphasis on Montgomery County schools.
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