Montgomery schools chief proposes more schools, classrooms to relieve overcrowding

Montgomery County’s schools chief proposed a $1.55 billion capital improvement budget Monday that seeks to relieve overcrowding in Maryland’s fastest-growing school district with the construction of five new schools and 22 classroom-addition projects over the next six years.

But citing budget constraints, Superintendent Joshua P. Starr also said that he plans to delay 20 school revitalization projects by one to two years. He placed some of the blame for the funding shortages on state officials, saying they did not give the school system its “fair share” of Maryland construction funding.

Montgomery has 17 percent of Maryland’s student enrollment, but the county typically gets about 11 percent of state construction funding, officials said.

“Montgomery County does not receive what we should from the state,” Starr said, offering details of his program at Highland Elementary School in Silver Spring.

Starr emphasized that Montgomery’s rapidly increasing enrollment has become a major challenge for the school system. Montgomery’s student population has jumped by 14,000 since 2007, and the schools are expecting an increase of 11,000 in the next six years. Enrollment is 151,607, with an uptick of 2,800 students — enough to fill four elementary schools — this school year alone.

“Let me be clear: We are bursting at the seams,” Starr said.

Starr said that meeting the full range of the district’s capital improvement needs would cost $2.2 billion. But he said it would be irresponsible to request so much, so he trimmed his proposal for the next six years to $1.55 billion.

The revitalization projects delayed under Starr’s proposal include those at 15 elementary schools, which would be pushed back one year, and those at five secondary schools, which would be put off two years. Those schools remain in the same priority order.

Starr said that if Montgomery is able to “get the money we deserve” from the state, some projects could be restored “to their previous timetable.” Still, he said he realizes his proposal would not be “making everyone happy.”

Starr also prioritized the replacement of aging heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in county schools, which has recently emerged as a problem at Rolling Terrace Elementary School in Takoma Park. The school had a mold outbreak in September, and parents have worried that children were sickened.

Starr’s plan envisions steering $96 million toward HVAC upgrades during the next six years.

Fourteen of the 22 classroom-addition projects are new. On the secondary level, additions would be built at North Bethesda Middle and Bethesda-Chevy Chase High schools.

Elementary school additions would include: Brookhaven, Glen Haven, Highland, Kemp Mill, Sargent Shriver, Ashburton, Lucy V. Barnsley, Burtonsville, Diamond, Kensington Parkwood, S. Christa McAuliffe and Judith A. Resnick. Eight other addition projects are underway.

Starr’s proposal represents an increase of $184 million over the district’s last capital improvement program. It is scheduled for school board review Nov. 7, with public hearings set for Nov. 11 and Nov. 14. If approved by the school board at a vote scheduled for Nov. 18, the proposal would go to county officials for consideration.

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