Rosemary Hills, which serves students from pre-kindergarten to second grade, is built to hold about 475 students, but about 700 students are enrolled this year. At roughly 150 percent capacity, the school is just one of several in the county facing serious overcrowding amid expectations of further growth.
Rising enrollment has created challenges for the school system, including a need for new schools, modernizing sagging buildings and expanding campuses to accommodate students. But county school officials say there isn’t enough money to keep up with the thousands of students expected to pour into the system over the next decade, and they are having to make difficult choices.
“It’s like a triage,” said Bruce Crispell, the director of long-range planning for Montgomery schools. “You take care of the worst space deficits first.”
County officials estimate that more than 10,000 new students will enroll in the public schools in the next six years, a total roughly equivalent to the population of an entire high school each year. Those new students would push enrollment up more than 7 percent, from 148,700 to 159,400 by 2018.
How to pay for more educational space is an unanswered question. With the economy pinching the county’s capital budget, officials recommended delaying or cutting building projects across all departments, including schools.
The fiscal 2014 budget proposal from County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) earlier this year rejected the $14 million the Board of Education requested for capital improvements. It also suggested cutting $20 million in school capital projects between 2015 and 2018.
“It’s not a question of lack of support for the school system, but we have to make our needs fit our resources,” said Patrick Lacefield, a spokesman for Leggett. Lacefield said the county had to prioritize urgent construction projects, such as repairing unsafe bridges or replacing buses that had safety problems.
The County Council restored most of what Leggett recommended cutting but only as a stopgap measure until Montgomery officials tackle the capital improvement budget next year.
The county does a comprehensive update of its six-year capital improvements program in even-numbered years. Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill said a sober picture of how much construction the school system needs will come as the district prepares budget requests to present in 2014.
When Superintendent Joshua P. Starr “unveils his full capital budget in October and we hold hearings in November, it’s going to be breathtaking because it will be the opportunity to really address throughout the county the growth and the aging schools infrastructure,” O’Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase) said.