Rice says debt, school capacity problems and Purple Line influencing County CIP

GAITHERSBURG – County residents say they are concerned about capital budget projects, such as the aging Poolesville High School never being refreshed and the security of temporary classrooms near elementary schools.

On Monday, County Council Education Committee chairperson Craig Rice (District 2) told residents that the Purple Line – the light-rail service to connect Montgomery and Prince George’s counties—as well as the Council’s new spending affordability guidelines and County debt are chipping away at the money County will permit to be spent on school building costs and capital projects for schools in the FY 2019-2024 Capital Improvements Plan.

Officials in the County Finance Department advised the Council it has several concerns.

“We’ve been carrying a lot of debt for a long time,” Rice said, adding the County needs to go on a diet on how much it borrows.

He said the amount of debt service – interest paid on money the County already owes – increases with each passing year, and that the additional $40 million borrowed to fund construction of the Purple Line (which was requested by Governor Larry Hogan in 2015) is adding to that burden.

“That meant we were then taking that out that could have gone toward – could have gone to a fire station, could have gone to a library, it could have gone to roads, could have gone to tree stump removal, could have gone to pay debt service – all of these kinds of things,” said Rice of the $40 million. “That money…was allocated to the Purple Line project, to complete that project, and so that was a ‘change in the deal’ that wasn’t there before.”

“Our CIP is $1.8 billion, so I mean (the $40 million Purple Line budget request) is not ‘huge,’ but it’s still big enough to make an impact. It could still be additional capacity in schools…could be a small road project…you know…it still could be an impact, so that’s money that is lost now,” Rice said.

The limited County budget will become even more limited regarding the number of projects it can fund, he said, now that the Council has agreed to the Finance Department’s request to reduce the number of bonds the County can sell. The new bond limits will reduce County debt to keep its bond rating at triple-A, Rice explained. 

Oct. 23, Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Jack Smith suggested in his proposed six-year capital improvements plan recommended increasing the MCPS FY 2019-2024 Capital Improvements Plan from the approved $1.74 billion to $1.8 billion.

The County plan is to lower the number of bonds it sells annually the next several years. Smith said in his proposed budget and plan that the County’s spending affordability guidelines, which the Council passed Oct. 3, will harm MCPS capital project possibilities.

The General Obligation bonds fund “a signification portion of the county’s CIP,” Smith said. “The adopted SAG reduces GO bonds over the six-year period by $180 million. That reduction will have a significant impact on the level of GO bonds available to MCPS.”

County residents representing Germantown, Poolesville, Gaithersburg and Montgomery Village took turns asking him questions, many of which concerned whether he could leverage adding projects to address select concerns to the six-year Capital Improvements Plan. Specific topics included returning the Poolesville High School revitalization and expansion project to the CIP, and adding funding for safety and security improvements to elementary schools and temporary classrooms. 

Rice confirmed some construction projects and projects requiring funding from the capital budget might be added to the CIP, but said other projects will have to wait.

Germantown resident Margaret Schoap asked when Poolesville would be upgraded to comply with standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Resident Jerome Kloblukowski, the self-identified Poolesville commissioner, said he believes County government and the Montgomery County Public Schools Board of Education unfairly prioritized the newer schools that it built near developing areas were over older ones like Poolesville High School, and explained that he wants Poolesville to receive the same treatment other County high schools have received regarding capital projects.

“The bottom line is that’s a school you can’t just (put a) band-aid easily,” Kloblukowski said.

He said Wheaton, Damascus, Magruder and Wootton are in similar situations because MCPS’ Superintendent removed them from the MCPS CIP.

“Capacity is a lousy excuse for not taking care of business,” Kloblukowski said, at which point many of the 35 audience members broke into applause.

Rice said Poolesville High School, which MCPS Superintendent Smith temporarily shelved from construction (according to his proposed six-year capital improvements plan for MCPS) will not likely earn an expensive capital construction project soon due to how the school board and county select capital projects to fund. The issue is MCPS long-range planning department did not project overcrowding issues (more than 120 percent of the number of students it can hold) for the school in the next six years.

Rice said Poolesville High School – already one of the older buildings in the county – is at a disadvantage because MCPS does not project significant enrollment increases there.

“Normally a lot of our schools that are aged – are also aged and have a capacity issue,” Rice said.

Kloblukowski said the superintendent seemed to be unfairly favoring overcrowded schools to schools that are old.

Smith is in the middle of replacing the process by which MCPS central office staff selects which schools are next for rev-ex projects. This comes after a 2015 County Office of Legislative Oversight report indicated inefficiencies in selecting schools for construction projects such as expansions, additions or tear-down-and-rebuilds.

Kloblukowski pointed out the County hasn’t finalized the rationale by which MCPS selects buildings for revitalization and expansion projects. Rice seemed to hesitate, and then returned to the overcrowding aspect.

“At this point, we know kind of where folks (students) are going to be, and if you don’t have the capacity issue, you’re not going to be at the top of the list,” Rice said.

The Council approved MCPS Board of Education adopted the amended MCPS CIP for fiscal years 2017-2022, plus an extra $13.4 million above what the BOE requested. The additional funds would help the County avoid developmental moratorium, which relates to school overcrowding numbers. Smith said the funding was for projects to add to school capacity in areas where the county anticipated residential development.

A few residents also shared safety concerns about temporary portable classrooms, while others asked about measures MCPS employees were taking to respond to the interim safety and security report, which MCPS officials published online in September, specifically for elementary schools.

The report followed an investigation of all 25 county high schools, which Smith requested following the allegations of rape against two Rockville High School students in March, though prosecutors dropped the charges. One woman said she could not find evidence that the post-report recommendations for high school security will “trickle down” to the elementary schools.

Board of Education member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2) said at the discussion residents, and MCPS employees had shared the concerns about elementary school security and portable classrooms safety with the BOE during recent CIP budget hearings, and the school board is looking at different options for addressing them.

Carmen Vasquez, a Southlake Elementary third-grade classroom teacher, said she worries that the temporary classrooms, also known as portables, are unsafe. She said homeless people are living under the portable classrooms at Southlake Elementary School. She added concern about general safety, considering gang activity that might be nearby.

Montgomery Village resident Frank Lostumbo said he was concerned as well about safety around Southlake Elementary School and in nearby neighborhoods.

Smondrowski said the first two days of the CIP budget hearing, community members such as parents and staff mentioned portables safety concerns the last couple of weeks. The school board is looking at potential solutions.

Rice said more than one school needs security cameras but doesn’t have them, but he said he wouldn’t name which schools.

“I know plenty of schools that need (more) security,” Rice said.

The Board of Education is scheduled to act on Smith’s proposed capital improvements plan, and FY '19 proposed budget Nov. 27. Next, it will go before County Executive Ike Leggett for review as he prepares his county agency recommendations, for agencies such as MCPS, which he is scheduled to release mid-January so that the County Council can discuss and act on them. After it conducts work sessions in March and April, Smith said, the County Council is scheduled to adopt the fiscal year 2019 budget, and the 2019-2024 capital improvements plan in late May. 


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