School Boundaries: Will the Money Talk?

Editor’s Note: The following is the fourth in a series of seven guest posts from Sunil Dasgupta on the discussions surrounding the possibility of changing the boundaries of Montgomery County’s public schools.

Rachel Carson Elementary School has been a particularly egregious case demonstrating the need for boundary change. The school has been overcrowded by hundreds of students for over a decade, but the community has rejected boundary change that would reassign students to one of five other underenrolled schools within two miles.

Instead, backed by the city of Gaithersburg where the school is located, the community wants a second new school close to the current location. This preference for building new schools is pervasive and MCPS today has $800 million backlog in new school construction, including $450 million for three new high schools. Where is this money going to come from?

Typically, school construction costs are shared between county and state, but the state’s contribution has to be matched by the county. The consequence has been a perverse systemic preference for shiny new buildings, as the county has to spend more on the capital account to secure more state funding.

Democratic leaders in Annapolis have now promised $2 billion more for statewide school construction, but it will be hard to find the matching funds in a weak fiscal environment. County revenue projections remain flat and tax increases will be politically costly, even among the county’s left-leaning residents.

In addition, in the last two years’ budgets, the county met revenue shortfalls by diverting contributions to the retiree health benefits fund. That decision earned a rebuke from the Moody’s Investor Service ratings agency.

Under these conditions, increased capital spending is a raid on the operating budget, hurting underenrolled schools facing the prospect of losing programs and courses and triggering a downward spiral of even lower enrollments and diminished achievement. If instead, MCPS reassigned students to underenrolled schools, it could reduce its capital spending, shift resources to the operating budget and enable the school system to do the one thing that is proven to improve school performance: hire more teachers and reduce class size.

If nothing else, reducing the debt servicing costs would make more money available within the operating budget itself. Since public schools account for almost half the county’s annual budget, rebalancing capital and operating budget by way of boundary change is increasingly the fiscally responsible course of action.

Another cost of the current situation is that the overcrowded parts of the county are faced with a looming building moratorium that would have stopped construction on a major real-estate project in Twinbrook, Rockville City Council member Mark Pierzchala proposed to raise the moratorium threshold significantly, but pointedly did not call for boundary change. “That’s up to the school board,” he told me when I asked him.

To be fair, that is the official position of all members of the Montgomery County Council. After some intense political fighting, the Rockville city council exempted the Twinbrook project in question from moratorium, but the prospect of another stop to more building remains politically salient. The contest in the upcoming Rockville city council and mayoral elections have arrayed along pro- and anti-moratorium lines. In the county, the council averted a larger stoppage by exempting major development projects from the moratorium just in time.

Monday: A New Coalition?

Sunil Dasgupta teaches political science at University of Maryland-Baltimore County and is an MCPS parent. He can be reached on Twitter @sunildasgupta4.

Photo by Mike Diegel

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