School Overcrowding 

A simple term, but it appears to mean different things in different parts of Montgomery County. In fact, it sure seems like the only school construction projects being approved by MCPS are in Bethesda. Folks in Bethesda are so attuned to school overcrowding that they’re asking MCPS to renovate Walter Johnson HS for the second time in less than a decade. And MCPS seems all too willing to oblige. Meanwhile, the most overcapacity high school in the county – Northwood – hasn’t been renovated or rebuilt since 1956. It’s here in Silver Spring. Nobody is saying a word about that. Go figure.

MCBOE At War With Pretty Much Everyone

Today’s Bethesda Magazine brings us the story of the Montgomery County Board of Education being at war with . . . well, pretty much everyone, over the construction of a new Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster middle school. On the one side, you have the Board and the MCPS bureaucracy, and on the other, a list including County Councilmembers Marc Elrich and Craig Rice, Planning Board chair Casey Anderson, the Planning Department’s staff, and residents near the proposed school.

MCPS says the new school is sorely needed to address overcrowding at Westland Middle School, the only existing middle school in the B-CC High School cluster. Building the school would also allow sixth graders currently attending area elementary schools to move on to middle schools.

But residents near the Kensington park, where a site selection committee twice recommended the school be built, have fought the project. After one neighborhood group’s legal challenge of the site selection failed, a different group of neighbors have complained in the last few months that the four-story school design isn’t safe and shouldn’t be built on the relatively small 13-acre park site.

MCPS officials have also sparred with Montgomery County Planning Department staff over the design of the school, which will be built on a hilly site that will require multiple retaining walls. Planners expressed concerns about the location of an entranceway to the site and whether too many trees will be taken down to make way for the project.

In July, Planning Board Commissioner Casey Anderson and council Education Committee Chairman Craig Rice wrote in a letter to the BOE that “the final design is disappointing” and the design process “didn’t serve the public or our respective agencies very well.”

Board President Pat O’Neill fired right back on Monday, accusing Anderson of having skipped a meeting with Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers – in April.

Board President Patricia O’Neill shot back Monday with a letter to Anderson and Rice in which she questioned why Anderson didn’t show up to an April meeting arranged by MCPS Interim Superintendent Larry Bowers to discuss the issue.

“I understand from Mr. Bowers that he worked with all parties to establish a time to meet on April 28, 2014, but when it came time to meet, Mr. Anderson did not attend the meeting,” O’Neill wrote. “This was an important meeting on an important project, and in retrospect it would have been good for Mr. Anderson to have attended this meeting, as Mr. Bowers had requested.”

Ooooookay. Sort of a “and you’re a big jerky jerk, so there” kind of response. A side note: as anyone familiar with the county’s development process can tell you, when the Planning Department staff opposes your site plan, it’s gotta be pretty damn bad. They approve just about ANYTHING.

Predictably, MCPS officials claimed to have no idea what the problem is. Pause. OK, I’ll just leave that right there.

Andrew Zuckerman, MCPS chief operating officer, told the board Thursday that he was “mystified” by some of the complaints from other agencies and “some of the email chatter that you’ve heard.”

And of course the “we’re way too far down the road to stop now” argument. Always a favorite.

James Song, MCPS director of facilities management, said Montgomery Parks has never formally presented North Chevy Chase Park as an option for the school site and that starting the feasibility study and design phase over would take three years.

MCPS has also spent $2.5 million on architecture and design work for the Rock Creek Hills Park site that could not be recouped, Song said.
The earliest the school system would be able to open a B-CC Cluster middle school on a different site would be the 2021-2022 school year, board member Phil Kauffman said.

Both of these claims are highly doubtful. Moving a school from one location to another does not take three years. And the architectural and design work can be utilized at another site as well. And just a reminder: I previously reported that Walter Johnson HS is looking for an expansion, the design work was just commissioned this year, and MCPS is rushing to get the work done to include it in this year’s CIP. So I call bullshit on the “we can’t do anything for six years” argument.

And of course there’s the predictable NIMBY cow patty being flung around.

Rafe Peterson, a PTA representative for Rosemary Hills Elementary School, criticized neighbors arguing against the design.

“The voices of the NIMBY’s should not [drown] out the thousands of parents that support this school,” Peterson wrote. “There is no deal that can be cut that would make them happy and no way to appease them other than to move to another location. In any event, when you actually count their numbers they are a small minority. Our Cluster overwhelmingly supports this school.”

Bottom line is this: the fact that this is about the BCC cluster, and the earlier story was about WJ, is not an accident. It’s become almost comical the lengths to which MCPS and the Board will go to keep up the firewall between the Bethesda/Potomac clusters and the Downcounty and Northeast Consortiums. The ultimate nightmare scenario can be summed up in three word: countywide boundary redraw. Commence freakout now.

In this regard, take a look at this list of middle schools, with current student population and capacity. There’s over 4,000 empty seats in existing middle schools, and MCPS wants to build a four story middle school with an expansion capacity of 1200 students when Westland, the sole existing BCC middle school, is only 157 students over capacity. And this new school, with potentially the third largest capacity in the county, will be on a 13 acre site in a park. Only five of 38 middle schools are on a smaller site. Not one of them has a capacity anywhere near the 1200 that the proposed new school will have.

One last point: when Pat O’Neill says this:

O’Neill pointed out that the school system already redid the site selection process once and that Rock Creek Hills Park was the choice of a group of residents, parents and county officials.

don’t buy the snake oil. I was a member of the Downcounty Comsortium base area committee back in 2003. A bunch of us suggested all kinds of things to MCPS at the outset, including but not limited to expansion of the consortium to include BCC and Walter Johnson. We were told in no uncertain teems that we were there to consider only one thing: base areas. Period. The outcome was predetermined.

Similarly, I would bet a dollar that the “site selection process” for this new school was similarly unipolar. Support Rock Creeek Park Hills, period. I would be very surprised if any other specific sites were even considered. It’s the MCPS way.

Anyone See A Pattern Emerging Here?

First we learn that Walter Johnson, one of the highly sought after “W” schools (along with Wootton, Winston Churchill and Walt Whitman), a high school that was just rebuilt in 2009, is being considered for another renovation. Now Walt Whitman, with the lowest minority population in the county, is due to be renovated, despite being barely over capacity (Downcounty Consortium Schools Northwood, Einstein and Wheaton are all currently more over capacity than Whitman), and despite the fact that it was renovated in 1992 (Northwood 1956, Wheaton 1983, and Einstein 1997).

All three of the above schools are projected to gain more students in absolute numbers than Whitman over the next six years, and all will be over 122% capacity by 2021, as compared to Whitman’s 113%.

There’s only one way to interpret this. But you already knew this, dear readers. Let’s go with the British version this time, shall we?

MCPS Planning Process: A Mess

In 2011, MCPS undertook a process to review its school renovation and reconstruction plan. It intended, as it has in previous reviews, to utilize the new plan for 20 years, until 2031.

Last month, the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) submitted a report to the Council regarding its review of MCPS’ 2011 review process. It wasn’t good. In fact it was atrocious. It fits perfectly with the patterns I’ve described, which is that reality-based issues like school capacity and student demographics have no place whatsoever in determining the priority of school renovations. Which is just nuts.

The Montgomery County school system plans to rethink its list of which schools are next in line for modernization, after a report that strongly criticized the way those decisions are made.

The ranking system is based on outdated information, marred by factual errors and favors total reconstruction over renovation, according to the July report by the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight, the research arm of the County Council.

Until the report’s release, the school system had intended to keep its list unchanged until at least 2031. But the oversight office found that other large school systems, including Baltimore County, Fairfax County and Dallas, regularly revisit and adjust their construction priorities.

“It’s definitely disturbing,” said council member Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring). “This doesn’t inspire public confidence.”

Yes, it is. Let’s look at some specific examples. 

But the order of the list hasn’t changed since it was drafted in 2011, the oversight office found. That means the rankings don’t account for recent deterioration in buildings or for smaller, incremental improvements by the school system that might reduce the need for renovation or expansion.

For example, a few months after Fox Chapel Elementary in Germantown was ranked 21st on the list, the school system installed new fire sprinklers and strobe lights, the report said. Had that safety upgrade been taken into account, the school’s overall score would have been 10 points lower, boosting six other schools ahead of it in line.

Other schools have similar stories, sometimes in the other direction. 

“We’ve been telling the county this for a long time. Those scores need to be revamped. What was true in 2011 is not necessarily true today,” said Laura Stewart, president of the parent-teacher association at Woodlin Elementary in Silver Spring, which is 25th on the list — at least 10 years from getting started.

Stewart said Woodlin’s 1940s-vintage building, last renovated in the 1970s, “is way overdue for a complete overhaul” of its cramped cafeteria and gymnasium.

The school is projected to be 136 percent over capacity for the coming school year. But overcrowding is not among the factors weighed in construction and renovation decisions — a policy that the oversight office questioned in its report.

This is mind-bogglingly stupid and inefficient.

My personal favorite story, though, involves Piney Branch Elementary School. One of the factors that is considered is utility use – the more that is used, so goes the logic, the more need there is for a school renovation, due to aging systems that are not energy efficient. Fine as far as it goes, but apparently somebody forgot to tell the consultant that PBES has a swimming pool in it – no other school in the county does. From the report itself:

Piney Branch Elementary School received the highest elementary school score in this parameter based on its high energy and water consumption. The methodology did not take into account that Piney Branch is the only elementary school in the County that houses a swimming pool and so its energy and water consumption is not comparable to other elementary schools. As the highest scoring school in this parameter, Piney Branch was the benchmark for all other elementary schools. Had the FACT methodology adjusted the Piney Branch score to account for the swimming pool, then the scores of all elementary schools would have changed.

Piney Branch now sits 15th on the list of elementary schools slated for renovation, based in large part on the failure to account for its pool when factoring utility expenses. In this and other areas, the OLO report also faults the MCPS methodology for relying on a single year’s worth of data, when utility costs can vary widely based on weather and other factors not related to the school’s HVAC system.

A number of other basic calculation errors have also affected where schools land on the list. No steps have been taken to correct these errors and adjust the list accordingly.

Finally, the OLO report notes a heavy bias in the MCPS process for complete reconstruction rather than renovation. Other jurisdictions studied by OLO are more balanced, including Fairfax and Anne Arundel counties in the DC area. Complete reconstruction is vastly more expensive and cuts down the number of projects that can be going on at the same time. No other jurisdictions looked at by OLO maintained a priority list for as long as 20 years, as MCPS does, without some kind of periodic review.

While it’s good to see MCPS say it will review the process in light of OLO’s report, the review won’t be very thorough. Superintendent Larry Bowers indicates that he wants to make any changes before the new County Capital Improvement (CIP) budget is submitted – in two months. Don’t expect more than a band-aid, if that, and don’t hold your breath waiting for common sense factors such as school overpopulation and demographics to get any consideration at all.

So when things get worse in the coming years, don’t act surprised – like the school segregation data I discussed several times recently – and will again soon – it’s all right there in front of us, if we’re willing to look honestly and not avert our eyes and pretend that it’s all gonna get better. Because it’s not.

MoCo High Schools Side By Side

I posted this a couple of weeks ago, but after the Walter Johnson article in Bethesda Magazine and my spittle-inflected response thereto, I thought it was worth posting again. It shows clearly that there are a number of schools more overcrowded and much older than WJ. Yet MCPS has seen fit to pay for a proposal from an architect to pay for an addition to Walter Johnson and seems poised to rush the project into the County CIP this year. Look at this data and tell me why. I can’t even.

The spreadsheet is here.

A note: MCPS has all this data available on its Schools At A Glance site, which for some reason lists tons and tons of data by individual school, but never puts them side by side. Perhaps so it can keep away from conversations like the one I’d like to have about Walter Johnson getting an addition six years after it was renovated while Downcounty Consortium schools that haven’t been renovated since as far back as 1956 (Northwood) languish with higher overpopulation than Walter Johnson? And a whole heck of a lot more minority and FARMS students to boot?

Of Green Zones and Red Zones

Today’s Bethesda Magazine piece on Bethesda’s efforts to get a renovation project for Walter Johnson High School in the County Capital Improvements Program (CIP) breaks open some serious issues for those, like me, who have watched this dance play out for too many years.

Simply put, for those who pay attention to the issue in the County, there is the Green Zone and there is the Red Zone. This vernacular goes back as far as I can remember it, which is a very long time. Green Zone schools like BCC, Whitman, Walter Johnson, and Churchill have much less diversity (racial, ethnic and socio-economic) but always seem to get whatever they holler about.

Red Zone schools (Downcounty Consortium, Northeast Consortium, and the clusters of schools centered around Gaithersburg and north – primarily the Gaithersburg and Watkins Mill clusters) have greater diversity and more challenging student populations.

Today, we hear that the Western Montgomery Citizens Advisory Board is pushing to get Walter Johnson (green zone school, but, intriguingly, right on the border of the Downcounty Consortium) a new addition, because by 2020-2021, it will be at 119% capacity (2745 students with a capacity of 2398). Alluded to, but not stressed enough, is this astonishing fact: Walter Johnson was renovated in 2009. How atrocious did the planning have to be to spend tens of millions of dollars on a school that will be so far over capacity so soon? Way to go, MCPS planners.

Somewhat unbelievably, MCPS seems to be fine with giving Walter Johnson a shot at the CIP, as they’ve hired an architect for a feasibility study and are rushing to finish it before the CIP is submitted.

Hold on there, cowboys. Let’s consider a few other salient facts. All of what I discuss below, like the Bethesda Magazine article, is from Schools at a Glance, this fabulous trove of fun facts about each and every elementary, middle and high school in the county. It’s just chock full of good stuff. But it takes some compiling to really show what’s going on. I’ve done some, not all, of that compiling, but I can state the following with complete confidence.

The five high schools of the Downcounty Consortium, despite constituting 20% of the high schools in the county (five out of 25), currently have over a quarter of the county’s African-American student population and over a third of the Hispanic students. Add in the three schools of the Northeast Consortium and the numbers go up to over half the black students and 45% of the Hispanic students being located in eight high schools.

And by that same 20202-21 time period, four of the five DCC schools will be more overpopulated (by percentage) than Walter Johnson’s 119%. Northwood (last renovated in 1956) and Wheaton (1983) will both be at 128%, while Einstein (1997) will be at 122%. Blair (1998) will be at 110%, but only based on MCPS’ absurdly and patently low projection of an 11% increase in students over the next six years. If Blair (the most popular of the DCC schools by a wide margin) experiences the same average growth projected for the other four DCC schools, it will grow by 21.6% (624 students), and it will be at 120% capacity. The goal of the consortium, as I’ve noted before, was to bring Blair’s population down from 3400 to 2000. It will be over 3500 in six years, I’ll bet you a dollar. So the consortium will have failed spectacularly.

Walter Johnson, by comparison, is projected to have the third highest population growth in the whole county over the next six years, at 23.75%. By comparison, neighboring Green Zone schools will have far smaller population increases: BCC will grow by 1.41%, Churchill by 9.06%, Whitman by 13.3%, and Richard Montgomery by 12.89%. Like they say on Sesame Street, which one of these things just doesn’t belong here?

Compare to the six year population growth of the five DCC schools: Blair 11.07%, Einstein 16.7%, Kennedy 27.17%, Northwood 23.85%, and Wheaton 18.57%. Once again, one of the numbers is way out of whack with the rest.

What these widely disparate growth patterns show is just how much segregation of black and Hispanic students has transpired – out of the Green Zone and into the Red. While the consortiums didn’t succeed in their stated purpose, they sure did a hell of a job drawing a line between Green and Red zones. What these numbers also show is just how much the books get cooked – Walter Johnson gets double the growth rate of its neighboring Green Zone schools to exaggerate its overcapacity, while Blair gets half the growth rate of its neighboring Red Zone schools to play down how far over capacity the largest school in the County will be in six years.

That dollar I bet on Blair being over 3500? I’ll bet you double or nothing on it that WJ doesn’t come close to growing by 24%.

Given the recent history of MCPS student population growth projections, why should anyone trust what MCPS says when the numbers are this suspicious ON PAPER? What might we find when we dig in deeper? And the broader history is worse – pretty much every projection upon which MCPS has based its decision-making has been wrong. In 1984, MCPS closed Northwood High School because there was no possible way it would be needed for 50 years. Ten years later, neighboring schools were overcrowded to the breaking point and Northwood reopened in 2004. There are dozens of similar stories I’ve heard and forgotten over the years. We should have precisely zero confidence in anything the school system says regarding population projections.

And to dear, lovely Bethesda: you want an addition to Walter Johnson? Get in line and wait your turn like everyone else. Thanks. Love and kisses from Silver Spring.