The Washington Post

In Montgomery, dozens testify against cut in school construction funding

Dozens of Montgomery County parents, school officials and municipal officials testified this week against a proposed cut in school construction funding by County Executive Isiah Leggett (D).

The Montgomery County Council held public hearings Tuesday and Thursday for the county’s upcoming six-year capital spending plan, which dictates how construction funding is allocated among schools, roads and other infrastructure projects.

Last month, Leggett proposed the first cut in school funding in recent memory, despite record-high enrollment growth and what school officials describe as low construction costs.

Of the proposed $4.21 billion in capital funding, Leggett proposed $1.36 billion for schools, a 0.3 percent decrease from the previous capital plan. The Board of Education had requested $1.49 billion, or a nearly 10 percent increase.

Leggett is proposing seven school additions and the construction of two new elementary schools and a new middle school. But he is, among other things, delaying the modernization of most middle schools and all high schools.

School officials have made guarded public comments about Leggett’s proposal. Board of Education President Shirley Brandman (At Large) has said she understood the “difficult balancing act” the county is in. Nonetheless, in prepared remarks Thursday, she urged the County Council, the body that ultimately approves construction funding, to support the school board’s proposal.

Parents stood up and waved multicolored signs several times Thursday to support additional school funding. Several families from Poolesville — home of one of the highest-ranking public high schools in the nation — wore matching Poolesville Elementary School T-shirts.

“We have the No. 1 school academically in Maryland, and 64th in the nation, in a tired, deteriorating building,” said Jerry Klobukowski, a town commissioner for Poolesville.

During both hearings, business leaders and transportation activists testified against a deferral of construction funding for a second entrance at the Bethesda Metrorail station. Many of those testifying said the delay would interfere with plans for the construction of the Purple Line, a 16-mile transit line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

“It is crucial that the county honors its commitments to build the … entrance,” said Jonathan Sachs, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, on Tuesday. “The Purple Line must be a priority for Montgomery County.”

Other aspects of Leggett’s proposal that drew criticism include continued funding to explore building a mid-county highway and a delay in funding the Metropolitan Branch Trail, a bike trail leading to Union Station in the District.

Meanwhile, business owners and community activists from Wheaton urged county legislators to add language in the capital improvement plan to protect the neighborhood’s small businesses, which some Wheaton residents believe may disappear as the area is redeveloped.

“There is more to gain by moving forward together than taking a step back and watching Wheaton’s moment fade into thin air,” said Wheaton activist Ash Kosiewicz. “We believe this council has the ability to bridge a vision for Wheaton’s future with its present-day strengths.”

Those commenting from Wheaton did not provide specifics, but they echoed testimony made in support of a controversial bill introduced last October.

The legislation would require big-box stores to sign, or make a good-faith effort to complete, public-benefits contracts with community groups. That bill, introduced by council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring), seems to have lost favor among council members.

Council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda) and Nancy Navarro (D-Eastern County) introduced bills this week partly in response to the concerns by Wheaton activists. Berliner’s bill would create an employee within the county’s department of economic development to focus on small businesses. Navarro’s bill, which has secured majority support, would allow certain small businesses “adversely impacted” by redevelopment to apply for county grants.



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