School Boundaries: Subdivision Staging Policy

Editor’s Note: The following is the last 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.

As yet, the school board and MCPS officials are not free of political pressures. As of early August 2019, the school board had delayed consideration and award of the consulting contract intended to investigate the boundary issue. The move is likely to shift the venue of the contest over school boundaries to the upcoming review of the county’s Subdivision Staging Policy.

The SSP is the instrument the county uses to ensure that schools and transportation infrastructure stay abreast with development. The SSP is subject to a quadrennial review when the county Planning Board solicits public input and develops measures for adequacy tests infrastructure. Specifically, the intent is to predict how much traffic and how many students new developments will generate.

The county Planning Board and well-organized parent groups from well-to-do parts of the county have been battling over student generation rates for some years now. Parent groups point to overcrowded schools as evidence that the Planning Board’s student generation rates are faulty.

In particular, they say that Planning Board’s methodology for measuring student generation from multifamily housing units—apartments—are incorrect. The Planning Board has countered with reports that majority of student generation in overcrowded schools comes from turnover of existing housing, rather than from new developments.

For a decade, county officials have been keen to push through new developments because they are a big source of new revenue in years when budgets have been stressed. This has set up a confrontation between the Planning Board (and pro-housing officials in the county government) and the parent groups and their anti-development allies that is likely to burst out into the open during the SSP.

Missing from this contest is the central lesson that the development market is unpredictable, as these numbers pertain to both overcrowded and underenrolled schools. Developers in the county hold a large number of preliminary building approvals, which they could use to break new ground, but they have not done so.

This means that neither developers nor governments can predict perfectly how the housing market will move, and with other options in Washington, D.C. and Virginia, business decisions are going to be uncertain. Consequently, one school might be overcrowded, and two miles away there may be an underenrolled school. School boundary change could mitigate the overcrowding/underenrollment problem and allow development to proceed.

Both pro- and anti-development factions in the county have not quite understood the rise of a new coalition, which could potentially change the parameters of the debate itself from a pro- and anti-development framework, to one where the focus is on asset utilization, efficiency, and expanding the county’s remarkable run of prosperity beyond the western and southwestern parts of the county to its historically disadvantaged communities in the rest of the jurisdiction.

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

Photo by Mike Diegel

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