2 Montgomery elementary schools to be merged

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 24, 2009

A small elementary school could become the first in Montgomery County to close in more than two decades, under a plan proposed Friday by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Citing declining enrollment and the need to save money, Weast would send students from Monocacy Elementary School eight miles south to Poolesville Elementary School for the beginning of the next school year.

Both schools, in a sparsely populated area of the county west of Germantown, have seen their student populations fall over the past decade even as the overall size of Maryland's largest school system has surged to more than 140,000.

At Monocacy Elementary, enrollment has dropped from 298 students in 1999 to 176 this year, even though the school system tried busing children from the Poolesville area to increase its student body. This year's kindergarten class has 18 students, according to Weast's proposal.

Poolesville Elementary's student population dropped from 504 in 2001 to 387 this year. If the schools are combined, officials said, Poolesville Elementary would have 525 students, still below its capacity of 549. A slight majority of Monocacy Elementary's students would have shorter commutes to school, officials estimated.

"The recommendation to close Monocacy Elementary School and consolidate its enrollment at Poolesville Elementary School is made after years of hoping that enrollment would turnaround," Weast wrote. He added that enrollment "has now declined to untenable levels."

Monocacy Elementary would be the first school closed by the county since 1987, when officials combined Charles W. Woodward High School in Rockville with Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

"This will be a whole new experience for this veteran board member," said Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase), who has been on the school board since 1998. "We've been opening schools, not closing them."

Unlike schools in other jurisdictions, which have closed because of physical or academic problems, Monocacy Elementary is strong in both categories. More than 90 percent of its students passed state exams in reading and math last school year, and the school, built in 1961, was modernized in 1989.

"I am aware of how difficult it can be for a community to have a school closed," Weast wrote in the proposal. "However, I believe the educational benefits for students who will be consolidated at Poolesville Elementary School are significant. In addition, the net annual cost savings of one million dollars -- that will result from the closure of Monocacy Elementary School -- is a major benefit as well."

Parents at Monocacy Elementary, who were told of the plan Tuesday afternoon, said they were disappointed.

"I'm crushed," said Dawn Albert, president of the school's PTA. "We live in Poolesville, and we chose to go to Monocacy, so we're particularly upset about it."

Twyla Insalaco, the PTA vice president, said: "When you'd see the school enrollment go down, it gives a signal. We tried to do everything we could to encourage enrollment. But you can't invent kids and make them go there."

The proposal does not itemize cost savings but does note that "administrative and support staff costs can be significantly reduced." The fates of those staff employees were not included.

"Our Office of Human Resources will work with the staff to find other positions for employees displaced by the closure," Brian Edwards, Weast's chief of staff, said in an e-mail.

The proposal notes that enrollment at both schools is projected to continue falling because there is little major development planned for that part of the county. With the population of most other parts of the county on the rise, no other schools are expected to be closed under Weast's proposal.

Public hearings on the plan are scheduled for January and February, prior to a final vote by the Board of Education in March.

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