Small Potatoes, RCES, Choice, Capacity & Placeholders

Adam Ross from Small Potatoes Blog recently asked me a few questions on Facebook, and as we were chatting, I thought maybe it would be better to just post the questions and answers here, that way everyone would have access to them.

Warning – this is a long read, I think people deserve to know how I think about things, and not just what I think, because honestly, I think how I approach the problem is probably more telling then a simple answer.   I also include a lot of links at the end, because well, I like sources and data.

How should MCPS balance school populations between over and under capacity schools?

I would like to see additional choice introduced in the system, and allow under-capacity schools to become whole school magnets.   We know that whole-school magnet programs are attractive to families, encourage more diverse schools and can improve student achievement.

I would like to make sure that transportation was provided (like it is in the consortiums), so some geographic limits might have to be imposed for those magnets, but my larger hope is that eventually every family will have some meaningful school choice that doesn’t require a family to shoulder the transportation burden. Choice isn’t really available to everyone if you have to ask for special permission, need to have a car, gas money, and a spare 90 minutes every day to drive to drive your kids to and from school.

However, moving students around between schools isn’t enough; we also need more school capacity – that means new schools and school renovations.

There is a great pair of posts about placeholders at Seventh State; the most recent is by Glenn Orlin, the Deputy Director of the Office of the County Council, and the first is by Laura Stewart, who is the CIP Chair for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs. Glenn and Laura do a great job of explain what placeholders can do when they work well (Glenn) and what they do when they don’t work well (Laura).

I don’t mean to sound like a lawyer (or worse, a politician!), but the answer is probably somewhere between Glenn and Laura’s positions. Fundamentally, placeholders are a budget tool, with very real limitations like any other tool.  They can be part of the problem because they allow us to avoid acting to address a problem for a year or two (or five), while at the same time, not take steps to address the thing causing the problem (growth outstripping school capacity). However, they can also be part of the solution when we use them to give us space to plan for that growth in a thoughtful way, instead of throwing an area into a premature moratorium.

Just like everything else in life, avoiding the problem doesn’t work in the long term, and it just isn’t sustainable. The formula for when and how placeholders are used probably needs be to adjusted, as it is apparent that they have allowed some schools to be significantly over-capacity for far too long, and that isn’t fair to the students.  Likewise, while I am thankful the Col. E Brook Lee repairs and renovations are finally happening and did not get pushed back, I am concerned that we allowed to get to this point.

But I also think we need to look outside of Montgomery Co. for some of the solutions to our school construction backlog. Now, Andrew Ross at Small Potatoes laughed at me for suggesting this, but I do think that we need look to Annapolis for help with our school construction expenses, we are behind the curve and need some help to get back out in front of our school construction backlog. Adam Pagnucco (again at SeventhState) made a good point that we need a united Team MoCo (and, ummm, a better name than Team MoCo?) advocating for our needs in Annapolis, which is completely true, decreased state aid to education has hurt disproportionally hurt MCPS.

Ways to get the cost down of school construction

I’ve seen the data on school construction cost, and sometimes does it seem like everything is just more expensive in Montgomery Co. – liquor, dinner out and new elementary schools too.

I am not sure how we can drive down those construction costs given some of our fixed costs and state requirements, but I do know that we can’t be spending our resources most efficiently when we are forever in a reactive position on school construction.  And again, we can not do this alone, we need to fight hard for additional state support.

Specifically what to do about Rachel Carson ES 

Rachel Carson might be the most overcrowded school in MCPS – 1022 students in school built for 667, and it is emblematic of the problem of allowing growth to outstrip both actual school capacity and our planning process for capacity.   In areas of increased development, MCPS is behind the curve on school capacity and our solutions are more limited then they would have been otherwise had we not allowed ourselves to get so far behind. But that is a retrospective statement, and not the solutions Adam asked me about.

MCPS’ current plan to create capacity at a nearby school will help in 2022 at the earliest, which probably isn’t soon enough.   However, allowing some families to attend the less crowded local schools NOW and providing some transportation to facilitate that choice might be a viable option.   I am not even sure that there is a need to do something additional to make those particular under-enrolled schools more attractive (via a magnet) to families in order to encourage them to enroll there; for some families, just not having your student in a trailer/portable classroom, and/or being in a smaller school is a very desirable thing.

Think of your workspace and worklife – some people do just fine when they share an workspace, or work with 15 people in an office intended for 10. Lots of people don’t like it, but they can manage it pretty well (headphones to drown out the chatty co-worker, working from home some days, taking meetings out of the office). But for some people it is really stressful and gets in the way of their achievement and productivity. It is the same way for our kids – and for the kids who really can’t thrive in an over-capacity space we need to give them a way out – because elementary school kids can’t opt to do math class over lunch at the Chipotle, or work from home every Tuesday.

________ 11/17/15 – BOE statement re: RCES (expanding DuFief)  – RCES at a glance – all three of the Seventh State posts mentioned in this post here are available here.  – re: E Brook Lee, but also DuFief and other projects being pushed back  165 pages of how Maryland funds school construction – check out page 31 for statewide percentages and page 24 for how that percentage is determined & some good context – “When the Public School Construction Program first started, the State paid for architectural and engineering fees and movable furniture and equipment in addition to the construction costs of the project. The State contribution was generally about 95-99% of the project cost. Land acquisition was never eligible for State funding. In the mid-1970s the responsibility for A/E fees was shifted to the localities, and the cost of movable furniture and equipment was similarly shifted in the mid-1980s. Starting in the mid-1980s a shared State-local cost formula was implemented to determine the State participation in eligible school construction costs. The formula took into consideration the relative wealth of a jurisdiction. Unique funding formulas were enacted by the General Assembly for Baltimore City Public Schools and Prince George’s County Public Schools for periods of time. In April 2004, the General Assembly approved a revised formula for State participation which takes account of local wealth, the number of children in the Free and Reduced Price Meal Program, the status of the jurisdiction as a distressed county, enrollment growth above the State average, and the local funding effort toward school construction (see COMAR The new formula took effect for projects approved in FY 2006. The formula is recalculated every three years, with the most recent figures calculated in 2014 applicable to the FY 2016 – 2018 CIPs. See Section IX for the currently applicable percentages. – Magnet research (and yes, I fully recognize that this is pro-magnet, but they link to some great independent research & it was more efficient then giving you all 7 different links).  – how to request a change of school assignment now.




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