Berliner: County Should Set Aside Money to Buy Land for School Sites
County Council member calls for creation of new fund at meeting on overcrowded schools in Walter Johnson High School cluster
Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda
With a rare undeveloped property in Bethesda off the market and a private school site about to hit the market, Montgomery County Council member Roger Berliner on Thursday said the county should put money toward buying land for future schools.
Berliner, who represents Bethesda, pointed to the recent sale of the 75-acre WMAL radio towers site to Toll Brothers, a developer planning to build 330 homes there. He also referenced the anticipated sale of The Sidwell Friends Lower School site, a 5.5-acre piece of land just west of downtown Bethesda.
“What we lack is the capacity to act on those opportunities,” Berliner said. “We don’t have many opportunities for adding school capacity, new ground. This is all going to be infill development in our part of the community. We don’t have big swaths of land.”
Berliner made the comments during a Planning Department public meeting at Walter Johnson High School that focused on school overcrowding in the cluster.
Schools in that cluster have seen dramatic growth since the 2007, resulting in an additional 1,242 elementary students—an amount equal to two new elementary schools. Planners are now starting work on two new sector plans for the area (Rock Spring and White Flint 2) that could pave the way for more housing.
The prospect of more students troubled parents—many from the Ashburton Elementary School PTA—during a county Planning Department meeting on Rock Spring a few weeks ago. Thursday’s meeting, which included Montgomery County Public Schools long-range planner Bruce Crispell, was meant to address school capacity issues specifically.
Ashburton has 918 students with a capacity of 629 students and eight portable classrooms. An addition project is slated to open in 2020 to bring its capacity to 881. According to existing school boundaries, any students that come from residential development in Rock Spring would be assigned to the school.
Many MCPS parents in attendance Thursday, including District 18 state Del. Al Carr, questioned if simply building more space on existing school sites was the right answer. He cited a state study looking at best practices in school building sizes.
“What they found is, at a certain point it is not optimal to make a school bigger,” Carr said. “You get diminishing returns.”
While explaining the methodology that MCPS and the Planning Department use to measure enrollment and project future enrollment, Crispell acknowledged that addition projects or revitalization projects at existing school buildings may not be an option for much longer.
He said MCPS could consider as a possible solution the reopening of four former elementary schools in the cluster area now leased to private schools, nonprofits and other organizations: Alta Vista, Montrose, Arylawn and Kensington.
A fifth former elementary school, Grosvenor, wasn’t included in the list because it’s used as a holding school for other schools undergoing revitalizations. The former Woodward High School in Rockville, which is now Tilden Middle School, will be a holding school when Tilden moves to a new building in 2020.
Crispell and other MCPS officials haven’t ruled out the possibility of reopening Woodward as its own school in the future.
While a few parents Thursday blamed development for school crowding and some openly doubted Crispell’s numbers (derived from actual student addresses), most were more concerned with finding new solutions to ease overcrowding as quickly as possible.
“There’s no land, there’s no money and our schools are overcrowded,” one parent said. “So we need to start thinking out of the box. Every time we’ve brought up redistricting, all we hear is, ‘Oh, that’s so messy. Oh, that’s horrible.’ But you know what, there are schools around here that are half-full. They’re not in the [Walter Johnson] cluster, but they’re in other clusters. We have got to at least put this on the table.”
The meeting was held in the cafeteria at Walter Johnson, which is at 2,264 students this year. In part because of the surge of elementary school students making their way through the system, the high school is expected to be more than 300 students over its capacity by 2019.
MCPS is planning an addition project for the school, which was last renovated in 2009.
Berliner said it’s highly unlikely the county would’ve been able to afford the WMAL radio towers site, which is expected to have sold for at least $75 million. The sale won’t be final until Toll Brothers gets necessary development approvals.
He also said he doesn’t know if the 5.5-acre Sidwell Friends site, catty-corner to Bethesda Elementary School, is appropriate for a new school site.
But he would like to see Montgomery County and MCPS create something similar to ALARF, the Advance Land Acquisition Revolving Fund used by Montgomery Parks to buy rights-of-way and property needed for future parks projects.
“We don’t have such a mechanism for schools today to respond to a moment in time in which we can acquire property,” Berliner said.