Housing trends in the Great Recession, not new apartment development, are what’s behind surging enrollment numbers and over capacity schools in Bethesda’s three school clusters, the Montgomery County Public Schools director of long range planning said Monday.
Bruce Crispell, who made a presentation and answered questions at a Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board committee meeting, also said he did a survey of 3,632 high-rise and mid-rise units in downtown Bethesda in October and actually found fewer school-aged children than a Planning Department-generated formula would indicate.
Crispell, who spoke with us in November, said he found 74 elementary school-aged children attending MCPS schools, 43 middle school students and 54 high school students. That works out to a ratio of 20 elementary students per 1,000 units, well below the 42 elementary students per 1,000 units that Crispell and MCPS have assumed to determine which schools need additions and which clusters need boundary changes or new schools.
“I know the skepticism when I quote these rates. It seems awfully low,” Crispell said. “But [these units] are expensive. When a project is using structured parking, the land is extremely valuable. That really raises the cost for that development and that project.”
Many residents have expressed concern that MCPS is under-projecting enrollment growth, which they say leads to situations like the current one at overcrowded Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. The school system is awaiting funding for a school addition that would be done in 2017, just 15 years after the entire school was modernized and enlarged.
Enrollment at the 1,665-student capacity school is projected to hit 2,099 by 2016. The addition would provide for a capacity of 2,400.
“This [Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School] cluster has been the most stable place in the county in terms of no boundary changes since the 80′s and no enrollment growth of this magnitude,” Crispell said. “But this was a sea change.”
The sea change started in the economic collapse of 2008, Crispell said. Kids who previously went to private schools enrolled in MCPS, with a net of 700-800 students leaving private schools for public ones in the peak years of the recession. Last year, that number was down to a more manageable 200, Crispell said.
Crispell said full-day kindergarten, which the state required MCPS to install in 2006, also played a role in the large elementary school population boom in the area, as did less job mobility and fewer families moving out of the county because of it.
All nine B-CC cluster schools are over capacity, though Somerset Elementary School only by one student. Crispell distributed projections at the meeting that showed all but one of those schools would be under capacity by 2017 because of the anticipated building of 944-student capacity Bethesda-Chevy Chase Middle School and planned additions or modernizations for B-CC High School, Bethesda Elementary, North Chevy Chase Elementary, Rock Creek Forest Elementary and Rosemary Hills Elementary.
Some elementary school boundary changes, a process that can anger parents more than existing overcrowded schools, will also go into effect within the cluster.
The Walter Johnson High School is currently in better shape — Walter Johnson is under capacity this school year. But the numbers are projected to grow with just the approved projects of the White Flint Sector Plan. Crispell said a big concern is accommodating the development in White Flint, which would feed to the Walter Johnson cluster.
Crispell projected 9,800 total new housing units over what’s expected to be a 30-year buildout of the new White Flint, enough to merit the inclusion of a new elementary school in the 2010 Sector Plan. Walter Johnson, with a capacity of 2,274, is expected to hit the 2,400-student mark in 2018 and the 2,500-student mark in 2022. A modernization was completed in the school in 2010 and a new wing was added in 2012.
Walt Whitman High School faces a similar number crunch. It is 90 students over its 1,828-student capacity now and is projected to hit 2,000 students in 2016. Thomas W. Pyle Middle School in the cluster is projected to hit 200 students over capacity by 2014 and Wood Acres Elementary School is 217 students over capacity this year. Planning for an addition to Whitman will begin next year and the completion of an addition at Bradley Hills Elementary will alleviate some enrollment stress at other schools.
Fritz Hirst, a committee member and member of the Rollingwood Citizens Association in Chevy Chase, asked Crispell about projecting new student population from the Chevy Chase Lake Sector Plan. Depending on the status of the Purple Line, development proposed for new zoning in that area could generate around 2,000 new housing units.
Crispell said MCPS can not provide input into land-use decisions. He only incorporates projected students from planned apartments once each individual project is approved.
Hirst suggested changing that policy to frontload some of that forecasting, especially in the case of major Sector Plan rewrites such as in Chevy Chase Lake. Opponents of certain aspects of the Chevy Chase Lake Plan approved by the Planning Board have argued too much development there will overburden the already overcrowded B-CC cluster.