Leggett Balks at Fully Funding Plan to Cut Portable Classrooms

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's recommendations would add $52.4 million to the county's capital budget.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett's recommendations would add $52.4 million to the county's capital budget. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Ann E. Marimow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 12, 2007

Montgomery County Executive Isiah Leggett yesterday recommended funding $1.8 million of the school system's $28 million request to begin reducing the number of temporary classrooms by two-thirds over six years.

Leggett's response to an initiative by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast to phase out the unpopular portables comes as part of Leggett's first budget blueprint for capital construction projects and reflects, he said, a desire to move "more cautiously" rather than "full speed ahead."

"We will reduce the number of portable classrooms," Leggett said yesterday, "just at a different pace."

The suggested amendments to the six-year, $3 billion capital spending plan are an early sign of the new executive's priorities and underscore his approach to the county's finances.

Leggett's reaction to Weast's portable classrooms plan, which was announced with considerable fanfare in October, could foreshadow tension between the seven-year superintendent and the new county executive. Weast formally requested another four-year term last week in a letter to the school board, noting, among other accomplishments, that "we are on our way to dramatically reducing the number of portable classrooms on our campuses over the next seven years."

Leggett's recommendations, which must be approved by the County Council, would add $52.4 million to the capital budget. They include $35.4 million for Montgomery College to support projects such as the Rockville Science Center and Takoma Park campus expansion. An additional $12 million would upgrade high school science labs, provide lighting for the Clarksburg High School stadium and renovate Galway Elementary School.

Leggett, who announced his plans in a news release, acknowledged problems with portables. But he said it was premature to undertake such a major initiative before the General Assembly weighs in on state aid to the county and before he and the council can review data such as school enrollment figures. In the meantime, he said, the $1.8 million would allow the school system to begin planning.

"This budget includes development of a plan that lays the groundwork for a thoughtful and comprehensive approach to phasing out the use of portable classrooms," he said in the prepared statement.

A Weast spokesman, Brian K. Edwards, said the superintendent would not respond until he had a chance to talk to Leggett or members of his staff.

The number of temporary classrooms in the county has more than tripled in the past decade as schools have made room for smaller classes, increased enrollment and all-day kindergarten. In the past two school years, Montgomery had 719 temporary classrooms; this year there are 607.

The portables have been the source of complaints from parents, and Leggett said he understood. His 7-year-old grandson attends school in a portable in the eastern part of the county.

"I hear it from my daughter long and hard," he said.

Weast announced his campaign to tackle portables in October with then-council President George L. Leventhal (D-At Large) at his side. At the time, Leventhal said he thought the council would be able to pay for the effort.

The new council president, Marilyn Praisner (D-Eastern County), said yesterday that "starting cautiously is a good idea." Until the county has a handle on tax revenues and state aid, she said, the planning money "keeps things moving along."

Staff writer Dan DeVise contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company