The yellow hats trickled into the room Thursday night, until the conference room of the Taylor House Office Building in Annapolis was wall-to-wall PTA parents and their kids.
“When Montgomery County comes down, we come down guns blazing,” said Del. Kirill Reznik (D-Germantown), who spoke to a group of Maryland PTA and state education officials.
On the official PTA lobbying night in Annapolis, the estimated 250-350 people who rode buses and drove in from Montgomery County stressed their support for more state funding of school construction in MCPS.
They wore mock yellow hard hats and went through talking point after talking point about why the county — growing at the rate of roughly 2,000 students a year — needs more state funding to address overcrowding schools.
A bill in the House that would provide up to $20 million in state construction funding a year to the “big three” counties doesn’t have enough votes from those outside the delegations of Montgomery, Baltimore and Prince George’s Counties. It also faced a not so encouraging response in a committee hearing Thursday.
“Things that are big in Annapolis, they take time,” Montgomery County House Delegation leader Anne Kaiser cautioned, implying again that winning support for a school construction package for Montgomery County might be a multi-year process.
It doesn’t mean school supporters aren’t going to try this year. With about half the session remaining, the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations (MCCPTA) chartered MCPS school buses from five locations in the county.
Those parents and students learned of the difficulty county legislators face when asking representatives from other jurisdictions to support money for Montgomery County schools.
One of the talking points proposed was how MCPS, because of the quality of the school system, fuels the state’s high achievement marks in education rankings.
“We do want to be careful about how good we are, how smart we are,” County Councilmember Roger Berliner told participants on a bus that left from Whitman High School. “Because it actually sometimes works against us.”
Different arguments work to different people, Kaiser told the parents.
A legislator might take high academic achievement in MCPS or the county’s own contribution to capital school projects to mean Montgomery doesn’t need more money to deal with overcrowding.
One of the group’s main goals was getting other legislators to see Montgomery County in a new light — not the wealthy county with “roads paved of gold” that county representatives in Annapolis say has become its reputation.
During House committee testimony on Thursday afternoon, County Executive Isiah Leggett said one legislator asked why the county doesn’t pursue more classroom modules to address capacity issues.
“A module sounds like a portable on steroids,” Leggett said at a MCCPTA rally in Lawyer’s Mall outside the state house. “We’ve moved funds around. We’ve borrowed to the hilt. We’ve done virtually everything we can do locally. We deserve and we should have more resources in order to deliver for our students and deliver for Montgomery County and ultimately, to deliver for our great state.”
The Whitman cluster is home to Pyle Middle School. With a 2013-2014 enrollment of 1,411 students, it’s the largest middle school in the county in terms of population and larger than some MCPS high schools.
Parents there want an auxiliary gym project. The school’s physical education teachers must cram four classes at a time into a gym designed for two.
“They have to sit down and wait their turn,” said Whitman cluster co-coordinator Jill Chenok, who has three kids spread throughout the cluster. “By the time my third grader gets to Whitman, we need more classroom space there. We’re trying to talk about the fact that Montgomery County has paid more than the share that many of the counties in the state have paid over a number of years and we just can’t do it anymore.”
For Whitman parent and cluster coordinator Elise Hughes, the overcrowding problem isn’t just about portables — probably the most visible consequence of overcrowding.
“There’s this backlog of schools that are desperate for rebuilding and renovation and if we can’t deal with that backlog, all of the smaller problems don’t get taken care of,” Hughes said.
At Whitman, the small theater typically reserved for coffee house-style theater productions and the Shakespeare Club is now needed for classroom space.
“It’s little things like that, but they’re important to being in high school,” Hughes said. “It filters down.”
In the B-CC Cluster, new middle school construction is scheduled to start in the next few years, at least according to the capital budget proposed by Leggett. That budget, which puts a record $1.1 billion toward capital projects for MCPS, relies on some additional state funding this year.
The county partnered with Baltimore and Prince George’s Counties to present a united front of the state’s three biggest counties. But as Kaiser pointed out, that’s only 66 votes. The House has 141 members and without support from leadership, it appears increasingly likely Montgomery will have to try again next year.
This week, Sen. Nancy King (D-Montgomery Village) proposed an alternative measure that would essentially cut Prince George’s County out, since unlike Montgomery its school system hasn’t grown at 150 percent of the statewide average for three consecutive years.
“We understand that this can be a multi-year process, so we’re here to stay,” said Laurie Rosen, one of the PTA coordinators in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase cluster. “In our cluster, if we don’t keep construction of the middle school project on track, Westland Middle School will be larger than Rockville High School in less than about five years.”
With more hearings set for next week, MCCPTA organizers urged parents to send emails, take photos of dilapidated or overcrowded schools and show up again — preferably with their yellow hats.
To the parents and county officials, the need to catch up to the school system’s growth is urgent.
“Some of the elementary schools in our cluster went up by 20 percent in the last few years. We have schools that went from 400 kids to 700 kids. And it wasn’t a bump. It went up and it’s staying there, so it’s tough to make an adjustment statewide,” said Mary Cassell, a Walter Johnson cluster coordinator. ”There’s just nowhere for kids to go.”