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Montgomery proposes to add, expand schools
Growing Clarksburg would benefit from superintendent's plan

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 29, 2009

Montgomery County would build two new schools and expand nine others in an effort to address overcrowded buildings under a $1.49 billion, six-year plan issued Wednesday by Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.

Weast's proposal, which requires approval from the county Board of Education, would build an elementary and middle school in Clarksburg, one of the county's fastest-growing areas, and expand Clarksburg High School. Eight other elementary schools would be expanded.

One school, Monocacy Elementary north of Poolesville, would close because of declining enrollment, school system officials said.

Although the student population in the rural northwestern part of the county has fallen, enrollment in the rest of the district has surged to more than 140,000 and is predicted to hit 148,000 by 2014. A shortage of space is particularly acute at elementary schools, where the district is using more than 380 moveable classrooms. The county is using a total of 437 moveable classrooms.

Some of the population increase can be attributed to recession-hit parents who have transferred their children from private to public schools, and Weast said the county's birth rate has also risen.

"In areas that had been stable, you're starting to see growth," he said at a news conference Wednesday morning to discuss the plan. "We're sure about one thing: It's gonna stay."

The plan covers recommended projects from 2011 to 2016. It includes a request for $253.2 million in expenditures for 2011, an increase of about 16 percent over previously approved spending for that year.

Clarksburg, a rapidly growing community, would get plenty of new space in which to expand. An elementary school would be built in the Clarksburg Village community by 2013, a middle school in the Arora Hills area would open in 2015 and an addition at Clarksburg High would open in 2014.

Donna Pfeiffer, a cluster coordinator for Clarksburg PTAs, said she was "elated" at the news.

"It's much needed," she said. "It's going to be hard waiting that long for it to be built, but at least knowing it's in the budget brings enormous relief."

Other expansions are slated for Bradley Hills, Westbrook and Wyngate elementary schools in Bethesda, Georgian Forest and Viers Mill elementaries in Silver Spring, Darnestown Elementary in Gaithersburg, Somerset Elementary in Chevy Chase and Waters Landing Elementary in Germantown.

Infrastructure will also get attention. Projects are planned to replace schools' heating, air conditioning and roofs and to make facilities more accessible to the disabled.

Weast justified the spending by saying that construction costs are at a low because of the recession and that the school system should take advantage of that. But he said he anticipated opposition to the plan from those who think the school system should rein in spending.

"It's kind of counterintuitive, okay?" Weast said. "The country is in an economic downturn. . . .That's where preparation meets opportunity."

The school board president cheered the proposal. "This is trying to push the limits to pay for this," said Shirley Brandman (At Large). "There are things we want to get done. We want to get as many of them done under optimal circumstances. . . .Candidly, I think the political conversation is, 'Is this something we can afford not to do?' "

Kay Romero, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said she supported the goal of getting all students into school buildings instead of portable classrooms but looks forward to getting more details.

"I don't think anything is ever perfect," she said. "I think there needs to be a little more explanation to the community on where that's being done, where the cost savings are coming from."

The school board plans to hold a work session on Weast's recommendation Nov. 5 and will hold public hearings Nov. 11 and 12. The board is scheduled to take final action Nov. 19. If it approves the proposal, it will be submitted to the County Council and county executive.

"I think most people in the community understand this had to happen and that we need it," said County Council member Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty). "The big question will be, what kind of support will we see from the state?"

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