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by Aaron Kraut — December 10, 2014 at 1:05 pm 186 0

MCPSThe county’s public school system announced that it will launch its own open data website on Jan. 5, 2015.

The website, called OpenDataMCPS, will allow the public to search, sort and download information about the district — starting with Superintendent Joshua Starr’s recommended $2.4 billion operating budget for FY 2016.

The move, which MCPS announced Tuesday, comes after Montgomery County introduced its own budget website in August. The county website allows users to compare operating and capital expenditures in bar graphs, delve into specific areas of each department’s spending and share and embed the charts they’ve created.

County budget officials said the most common question they got after presenting the website was about the missing MCPS information.

The county’s $4.99 billion FY 2015 operating budget includes $2.28 billion for schools, almost half of the county’s overall budget.

OpenDataMCPS “will allow for the easy exchange of information” with the county’s OpenMontgomery websites, according to the MCPS announcement.

The school system’s open data site will also include enrollment data, school boundary information and, eventually, data points from its Schools at a Glance publication.

by Aaron Kraut — December 9, 2014 at 3:25 pm 1 Comment

Bethesda resident and new BOE President Pat O'Neill, via BOEA Bethesda resident and the longest serving member of the Board of Education was selected by her colleagues on Tuesday to act as the group’s president in 2015.

Pat O’Neill, who lives in the Burning Tree neighborhood and who has served on the Board since 1998, won her fifth four-year term in November and will serve as president of the board for the fifth time.

O’Neill described herself as someone “who gets things done” during a Board of Education candidates forum in October. She beat challenger Laurie Halverson by 25 points in November’s non-partisan election open to all county voters.

“This is an important time in the history of our school district as we continue to face unprecedented levels of growth and are preparing students and staff to meet higher expectations,” O’Neill said. “The Board is committed to addressing these challenges and I look forward to working with the leadership of Montgomery County Public Schools, the County Council, and the County Executive to ensure that every child in each of our schools receives a world-class education.”

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by Aaron Kraut — November 26, 2014 at 9:25 am 289 0

B-CC senior Patrick Cha, via Wendy's High School HeismanBethesda-Chevy Chase High School senior Patrick Cha has been named one of 12 national finalists for Wendy’s High School Heisman — an award given to high school athletes with impressive off-the-court accomplishments.

Cha, a tennis player at B-CC, has been ranked as high as No. 16 in Maryland’s junior tennis rankings. He’s also kept a 4.0 unweighted GPA in B-CC’s International Baccalaureate program and is an editor-in-chief of the school’s student newspaper, the “Tattler.”

After the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Cha founded a NGO called NetBenefitUSA. He’s asking for pledges to raise money for a Boston Marathon victim’s fund and an organization working to help victims of domestic violence.

B-CC Principal Karen Lockard announced Cha had been named a national finalist for the award during a special senior assembly on Nov. 10.

The fast food chain Wendy’s created the award in 1994 to coincide with the presentation of college football’s Heisman Memorial Trophy, given annually to college football’s most outstanding player. Cha and the 11 other national finalists will be invited to New York City for a weekend and $2,000 will be donated to B-CC in Cha’s name.

If Cha is named one of the two national award winners (a judging panel picks one male and one female), he’ll be recognized during ESPN’s Dec. 19 broadcast of the college Heisman Trophy ceremony, Wendy’s will donate $10,000 to B-CC in Cha’s name and Cha will get a $500 Wendy’s gift card.

Photos via Wendy’s High School Heisman

by Aaron Kraut — November 21, 2014 at 1:55 pm 530 10 Comments

A meeting this week with members of Montgomery County’s delegation to Annapolis and MCPS officials exposed some friction when it comes to the school system’s recent request for $223 million in state school construction funding.

The Parents’ Coalition, which describes itself as a school system watchdog, posted video of a question and answer session with county delegates, state senators and MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr during the meeting on Tuesday morning.

District 15 Del. Kathleen Dumais had some stern words for Starr, claiming the school system’s public campaign for state school construction funding has put the delegation in a tough position considering the state’s overall budget deficit.

District 15 Del. Kathleen Dumais, photo via Wikimedia user 1msulax“I’m just saying, be realistic in your request,” Dumais told Starr. “Don’t set us up for failure. Work with us. We want to work with you. But you put us in this position and then say, ‘Ooops, you didn’t do it,’ and we’re getting the blame. That is not fair.”

She also criticized a school system press release from Nov. 17 that mentioned how last year’s push for state construction funding “fell through.”

“I read the press release and there’s like, something missing that is stark. What it doesn’t say, says a bill didn’t pass so you didn’t get any money, but that’s false,” Dumais said. “Montgomery County got $39 million in school construction money. You don’t mention that in your press release. That’s unfair.”

Starr responded by assuring Dumais that MCPS and the Board of Education are on the same page with the delegation. He also said Montgomery County legislators aren’t the only ones who face skepticism from officials elsewhere in the state.

He described a recent meeting of local school superintendents from around the state during which an unnamed official questioned Montgomery County’s need for the funds.

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by Aaron Kraut — November 17, 2014 at 10:15 am 559 27 Comments

Whitman High School and the Whittier Woods Center (top right corner) that could be part of an addition project for the school, via Google MapsNorth Bethesda Middle School’s cafeteria is so crowded during lunch that it’s almost impossible to walk between the tables. Portables are likely headed to Walt Whitman High School next year. By January, Pyle Middle School might have 1,500 students — more than six county high schools.

Those are just three of the many reasons why local parents went before the Board of Education last week to testify in support of Superintendent Joshua Starr’s request for $220 million in additional school construction funding.

Many of the parents representing various Bethesda-area school PTAs also asked for a lot more than would be accommodated by Starr’s request.

“Pyle needs MCPS to send a space utilization planner, right away, now, to help implement lunchtime space options, because the cafeteria is more than full to the brim in each of four lunch periods, even with some students permitted to eat lunch in the hall, courtyard and a few classrooms,” said Whitman Cluster PTA rep Jill Chenok.

Whitman Cluster parents have long asked for more gym space at the school. The Wilson Lane school’s main gym, built in 1962, was designed to accommodate up to 1,000 students.

Starr said extra $220 million, which MCPS hopes to get from the state, could bring a feasibility study for a wider classroom addition and facility improvement project at Pyle — instead of the one auxiliary gymnasium approved as part of the current MCPS capital budget.

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by Aaron Kraut — November 12, 2014 at 2:30 pm 1,201 5 Comments

Facebook screen shot, Montgomery County is trending

Updated 11:20 a.m. Thursday Montgomery County is trending nationwide Wednesday, a day after the county’s Board of Education made the controversial decision to omit the names of all religious holidays from next school year’s calendar.

Just as one Board of Education member seemed to predict, much of the reaction hasn’t been kind.

“There are folks who are going to say if we eliminate the word Christmas, we’re contributing to a War on Christmas. That’s not the case,” BOE President Phil Kauffman said just before the Board’s 7-1 vote. “We’re closing on Christmas. We’re closing on the 25th. We’re closing on the 24th. Those days are required off by state law and they are federal holidays.”

School Dumps Christmas to Appease Muslims,” read the headline from a Fox News Radio contributor on Wednesday.

The story includes a number of offensive and downright ugly comments about Muslims and the county’s school board.

The same type of comments have been floating around all day Wednesday on Twitter and Facebook — where “Montgomery County, Maryland” is trending after dozens of news outlets across the country covered the decision.

The decision also has attracted criticism from many in the Muslim community who were pushing for some recognition of Eid al-Adha, one of two major holidays in the religion.

Board members agreed to take all holiday names off the official 2015-2016 MCPS calendar after Superintendent Joshua Starr recommended omitting references to the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Those holidays, just like Christmas, will still be “no school” days. But the move to remove references to all religious holidays comes as some in the county’s Muslim community are pushing for a “no school” day on Eid al-Adha.

Rep. John Delaney on Wednesday issued a statement criticizing the Board’s decision:

I’d like to see Montgomery County Public Schools continue to recognize religious holidays on the calendar, including those important to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith communities. Eid al-Adha is a holy day for my many Muslim constituents and I believe it should be a school holiday.  

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by Aaron Kraut — November 11, 2014 at 2:15 pm 1,232 10 Comments

MCPSThere will be no mention of Christmas, Rosh Hashanah or any other religious holiday on next school year’s MCPS calendar, despite the fact that students and teachers will still have no school on those days.

The county’s Board of Education debated the issue at its regular meeting on Tuesday.

BOE Member Rebecca Smondrowski recommended taking all holiday names off the school calendar — adding to Superintendent Joshua Starr’s recommendation of taking off the names of Jewish holidays Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

At issue was how to treat the holidays in light of protests from some in the county’s Muslim community who are calling for the school system to close on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

MCPS has so far said not enough students and teachers are absent from schools on those holidays to justify closing.

At the Board meeting on Tuesday, the school system’s lawyer made it clear that MCPS cannot close simply because it is the day of a religious holiday, but only because of operational reasons — such as high absenteeism due to the school system’s many Jewish or Christian students and staff.

Largely missing from the debate were any solid numbers on what the absentee rates would be on any of the Jewish or Christian holidays.

MCPS officials said there were observed absenteeism rates of about 15 percent on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, before the school system decided to close for those holidays in the 1970s. They also added that studying students’ religious preferences would present another problem, as MCPS can’t legally ask anyone to identify their religion.

“It is not open to us to do this as a token of appreciation. We can’t just do it because it’s a holiday,” said BOE Member Shirley Brandman. “I disagree with those who say taking the names off means nothing. It is us trying to clarify that the basis of our decision is the proper basis that is [legally] open to us.

“We recognize that we have a growing Muslim community,” Brandman said. “We must continue to monitor the impact on our schools.”

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by Aaron Kraut — November 11, 2014 at 12:00 pm 204 1 Comment

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr gives his annual State of the Schools address on Tuesday in North Bethesda

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr on Tuesday said he wanted to show, not tell, a crowd of more than 700 people some of the good things happening in the state’s largest school system.

So Starr spent much of his third annual State of the Schools address in North Bethesda highlighting programs, students and teachers who show the “real school improvement” the fourth-year superintendent said is happening despite the challenges of a growing school population and persistent achievement gap.

His examples included four-year graduation rate increases at Watkins Mill High School in Gaithersburg (despite an increasing amount of students on the free and reduced price meals program) and a teacher at Bethesda’s Westland Middle School who Starr said showed how the new Common Core curriculum is working on an everyday level.

Starr said he saw the teacher — Steve Katz — teach the concept of perpendicular bisectors by giving students a map and asking a question: “If a family had members living in Gaithersburg and Manhattan, where should they hold a family reunion so it’s the same distance to travel for everyone?”

“The kids were totally engaged,” Starr said. “They were working in teams, using strings, rulers and other tools to find the right location. And while they were solving this real-world problem, what were they actually finding? The perpendicular bisector.”

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by Aaron Kraut — November 10, 2014 at 9:00 am 1,190 11 Comments

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)Next year’s MCPS calendar may not include the major Jewish holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, even though county schools will be closed on both days as has been the case each year since the 1970s.

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr is recommending a different presentation for the school system’s 2015-2016 school calendar that would omit references to the holidays.

The move is an apparent attempt to make clear the decision to close on the two holidays isn’t “based on honoring or favoring a particular religious, cultural, or ethnic group,” Starr wrote in a memo to the Board of Education.

“The decision to close on these days — originally made in the 1970s — has been based on the experience of significant student and staff absenteeism impacting the school system’s ability to continue an instructional program and operate safe schools,” Starr wrote.

The distinction has become more important for MCPS now that many in the county’s Muslim community are calling for the school system to close schools on Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, or at least have the days noted on the school calendar.

Starr wrote that the holidays are noted in the school system’s Comprehensive Calendar.

Starr said MCPS has considered the input of Muslims asking for no school on those days, but so far, there haven’t been enough students or teachers missing from schools on those days to justify it.

“In prior years, there have been no significant attendance issues on these holidays,” Starr wrote.

Absences for religious holidays are considered excused, without penalties for students who then may have to make up work. Starr is set to present the new calendar proposal to the Board of Education during its regular meeting on Tuesday.

There will be no school in MCPS on Monday, Sept. 14 — the first day of Rosh Hashanah. There will also be no school in MCPS on Wednesday, Sept. 23 — the day of Yom Kippur.

by Aaron Kraut — November 4, 2014 at 10:05 am 347 2 Comments

MCEA Apple BallotA Monday afternoon email from the group that puts out the widespread “Apple Ballot” has supporters of one Board of Education candidate very unhappy on election day.

Montgomery County Education Association President Doug Prouty sent an email to all MCEA members criticizing at-large Board of Education candidate Jill Ortman-Fouse, linking to a Bethesda Magazine story about how the county’s main teachers union and main employees union (MCGEO) are backing different candidates.

MCEA, which represents about 12,000 MCPS teachers, is backing Ortman-Fouse’s opponent Shebra Evans for the at-large spot.

“The County Employees Union has made no secret over the past five years of their belief that the school system gets too much money. The comments in today’s article from their president makes clear that they want to reduce funding for our schools,” Prouty wrote. “They are the single largest donor to BOE candidate Jill Ortman-Fouse, having donated $6,000 to her campaign (while making no contributions to candidates for the County Council!).

“Voters are left to wonder what the discussions were that led to MCGEO’s contribution to Ms. Ortman-Fouse’s campaign; and how her ability to advocate for our students’ needs would be affected,” Prouty wrote.

That raised the ire of many Ortman-Fouse supporters, one who labeled it a “smear campaign” and many who have responded to Prouty expressing their distaste with the email.

The issue which seems to have gotten MCGEO into the school board race is school spending and the maintenance of effort law. Ortman-Fouse is in favor of tweaking the law to allow the County Council more flexibility in MCPS budgeting. She’s also testified in front of Annapolis lawmakers in support of waivers and revisions to the bill.

Evans has remained less specific about her views on the maintenance of effort law, pledging that she would bring better collaboration between the school board and County Council on the issue.

MCEA members are distributing their “Apple Ballot” at polling places on Tuesday. The union also endorsed school board incumbents Judy Docca, Pat O’Neill and Mike Durso.

by Aaron Kraut — October 30, 2014 at 12:25 pm 0

Councilmember Hans Riemer (file photo)A pair of county councilmembers are calling for a complete overhaul of the way the county decides which child care providers get much sought after space in county schools.

Friction between child care providers and the county’s Community Use of Public Facilities (CUPF) division has been bubbling for more than two years.

The CUPF, with oversight from its governing board (known as the Interagency Coordinating Board, or ICB, ) acts essentially as a leasing agent for county school facilities, renting out space for before and after school child care as well as gyms, auditoriums and playing fields for recreation, religious groups and other events.

After a controversial rebidding process for child care providers led to two lawsuits and many complaints about undisclosed conflicts of interest, unfair standards and school principals with too much sway, Montgomery County proposed a new set of regulations last month.

Many child care providers told the County Council last week that the new regulations were basically more of the same.

On Thursday, Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Nancy Navarro sent a memo to their colleagues asking them to reject the proposed regulations and help create “a dedicated Child Care office and give it a range of responsibilities, from developing a plan to increase access to care in the county, to managing public space needs, to supporting providers.”

“We believe that it is time for an overhaul of this process so that it aligns with our primary policy goal: bringing our communities excellent quality, accessible and affordable child care and after school programs,” Navarro and Riemer wrote. “The responsibility for developing these regulations and managing the selection process should be given to an organization in County government that is mission driven to promote access to quality, affordable care. The revenue that we generate from child care providers in public space should also be used to strengthen the county’s child care services.”

The memo came out hours before the Council’s Health and Human Services and Education Committees are set to meet with county officials in charge of drafting the new regulations.

That meeting is set for 1:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on County Cable Montgomery.

by Aaron Kraut — October 28, 2014 at 3:15 pm 260 3 Comments

MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr (file photo)MCPS Superintendent Joshua Starr on Tuesday restarted the school system’s public push for state funding of school construction projects with a press conference in front of portable classrooms.

Starr, speaking at Rockville’s Beall Elementary School, once again made the case that the rapidly growing school system is in need of help from Annapolis when it comes to a number of important school construction and addition projects — including some in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase area.

The superintendent is recommending an additional $220.8 million be added to the existing $1.53 billion capital budget passed in May by the County Council. That $220.8 million would theoretically come from Annapolis, where county legislators were unsuccessful during last year’s General Assembly in garnering enough out-of-county support for a state construction funding package.

“Montgomery County continues to make significant investments in meeting the space and facility needs of MCPS and we are very appreciative of their commitment,” Starr said. “But enrollment in our school district is increasing every year and if we are going to keep up with that growth, an even bigger investment is going to be needed. It is our hope the state will step up this year and provide additional revenue to its largest and fastest-growing school district.”

School and county officials came together during last session to push for support. But even then, many expressed the feeling that the upcoming 2015 General Assembly might provide a more realistic opportunity.

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by Aaron Kraut — October 17, 2014 at 12:35 pm 0

The Music Center at Strathmore, Flickr photo via Bill in DC

Before Strathmore’s brand new Music Center opened to the public, it opened to thousands of local elementary school students.

A decade later, the North Bethesda venue is celebrating 10 years of student concerts with a new music genre.

From Tuesday-Friday next week, Strathmore will shut down to make way for more than 11,000 MCPS 5th graders who will hear a new Blues concert thanks in part to nonprofit JazzReach. Until this year, the annual MCPS student concerts have exclusively featured classical music in partnership with the National Philharmonic:

The musicians onstage personify racial and gender diversity–Strathmore and MCPS were insistent that performers be inclusive and representative of the diversity in their community. The concerts were developed in close collaboration with MCPS music curriculum experts, addressing key concepts 5th graders will master during the school year. All elementary music teachers have pre-concert lessons to prepare students for their experience and strengthen their understanding of concepts contained in the program. The concerts will also illuminate for students how Blues is the foundation for genres more familiar to them, such as rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, and R&B.

The live multi-media educational program will fos­ter an appreciation of the great American Blues tradition. With the goal of teaching timely music curriculum concepts in a highly interactive and thrilling concert experience, the Strathmore Student Concerts include audience participation throughout, as well as supporting video content–live shots of musicians on stage and clips of famous Blues musicians performing.

Strathmore said the 5th grade student concerts require $124,000. Together with the 2nd grade concerts set for November, the total program costs $248,000 and is funded with help from the Strathmore Hall Foundation, GEICO, Jordan Kitt’s Muisc and the Paul M. Angell Family Foundation .

The concerts next week are set for 10:35 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and just 10:35 a.m. on Friday. Expect some school bus traffic in the area of the Music Center on Tuckerman Lane.

Flickr photo via Bill in DC

by Aaron Kraut — October 16, 2014 at 11:15 am 277 2 Comments

Photo via Real Food for Kids-MontgomeryYou won’t find Cheez-Its, Doritos and Cheetos in Montgomery County Public School cafeterias for much longer.

The school system confirmed it has added a batch of artificial food dyes and chemical additives to its “restricted list,” which means it won’t rebid for the products once contracts including those products expire.

Real Food for Kids – Montgomery — perhaps the most vocal group in calling for healthier food options in MCPS — announced the move in an email to supporters on Wednesday.

MCPS spokesperson Dana Tofig confirmed the school system’s Food and Nutrition Services department is adding the ingredients to its restricted list.

“In some instances the rebidding won’t take place for a few years, although we are always working with our current manufacturers to improve the quality and nutritional value of what we serve our students,” Tofig wrote in an email. “We took this action based on best practices and on input from parents and experts.”

Additions to the restricted list include five artificial food dyes, acesulfame-potassium, saccharin, trans fat, “pink slime” beef, MSG, BHA and an artificial sweetener.

That means no more Cool Ranch or Spicy Sweet Chili Doritos chips, Baked! Cheetos, Eagle Popped Crisps, Welch’s Fruit Snacks and several varieties of ice cream bars.

It also means frequent cafeteria entree items such as spicy chicken breast patties and orange chipotle sauce will be gone.

Real Food For Kids – Montgomery is a nonprofit that was key in getting MCPS to ban strawberry milk. It also quarreled with MCPS over snow day-influenced menu changes that meant two days of double-stuffed pizza in elementary schools during one week in January.

The group also made a wide-ranging list of recommendations for the entire school system (including salad bars in every cafeteria and more scratch-cooked meals) that picked up some support from members of the County Council. MCPS officials say they’re always looking to make improvements in their food offerings.

The group’s email on Wednesday announced a “Victory!!!” in its quest to ban particular food dyes and additives.

Tofig said Real Food For Kids members weren’t the only ones involved.

“While representatives from Real Food for Kids were among the parent voices we listened to, they were not the only ones. It is not accurate for them to say their efforts alone led to this move,” Tofig wrote.

Photo via Real Food for Kids – Montgomery

by Aaron Kraut — October 16, 2014 at 10:10 am 381 0

Board of Education candidates forum Wednesday in Potomac

With only one scheduled candidates forum left, the eight people up for four county Board of Educations seats on Nov. 4 made clear Wednesday that there are differences in opinion when it comes to some pressing MCPS issues.

Candidates differed on maintenance of effort, disagreed on whether the school system should institute its own inspector general and shared different views on the importance of later start times. Two candidates challenging incumbents criticized the Board and Superintendent Joshua Starr for what many teachers claim has been a disjointed rollout of the county’s new math curriculum.

The non-partisan Board of Education election pits four pairs of candidates against each other for three district seats and one at-large seat. Every voter in the county gets to vote for every board member, no matter the district.

In Districts 1, 3 and 5, incumbents Judith Docca, Pat O’Neill and Michael Durso are facing challenges from Kristin Trible, Laurie Halverson and Larry Edmonds, respectively. With at-large member Shirley Brandman not running for reelection, potential first-timers Jill Ortman-Fouse and Shebra Evans are facing each other for the one at-large seat on the ballot.

All eight candidates attended a forum Wednesday in Potomac hosted by the Whitman High School Cluster PTA.

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