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Montgomery County Public Schools. (Courtesy Photo)

ROCKVILLE – Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) enrollment continues to increase as staff study options to accommodate the growing body of students. Meanwhile, the school board considers options for redrawing school boundaries.

In the most recent board of education meeting on Oct. 28 MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith announced that the proposed FY 2021 capital budget and Capital Improvements Plan (CIP) for FY 2021-2026 would cost $1.818 billion, a $74.2 million increase from the approved CIP.

“This recommendation is similar to my recommendation last year because we continue to have extensive needs,” Smith wrote in his introduction to the recommended CIP. “May of our schools significantly are overutilized and beyond their life cycle, and capital projects are necessary to provide the learning environment that our students, staff and community deserve.”

Two supplements to Smith’s recommended CIP were about changing lines of school assignment boundaries, through what MCPS calls boundary studies.

Adrienne Karamihas, Robin O’Hara and Debbie Szyfer of MCPS presented findings and recommendations for two studies of options for changing the school assignment boundaries for two additional projects, as well as updates on enrollment.

The first boundary study project was Seneca Valley High School and included were Clarksburg and Northwest high schools, which have overcrowding issues.

Some of the suggestions for the Seneca Valley addition would involve changes in middle school assignments as well as high school assignments. Staff started with 14 options and narrowed those down to 11.

“No option fully addresses facility utilization at Clarksburg (High School) or Northwest High School,” said Karamihas, director of the division of capital planning.

Karamihas said that while she and her colleagues would typically consider four factors for boundary options, one element did not apply, and that was whether proposed changes would affect students who recently experienced a school assignment boundary change.

The other boundary study included Forest Mills, Montgomery Mills and Pinecrest elementary schools and consisted of three options for school boundaries.

Karamihas explained some of the impacts of options for school assignment. She emphasized that Montgomery Mills and Pinecrest are “paired” because they do not include kindergarten through fifth grade individually.

The way staff arrived at options is different from two years ago, before the board amended its policy FAA to include increasing student diversity as a factor in school capacity decisions.

In the past, according to the county office of legislative oversight report, MCPS tended to prioritize school construction projects based on the most severe overcrowding situations as well as deteriorating school buildings.

MCPS Chief Operating Officer Andrew Zuckerman said that staff provided more opportunities for members of the community to provide feedback on possible boundary assignments during the two recent boundary studies, including surveys, focus groups and community meetings.

Afterwards, staff and the board discussed child enrollment projections.

The preliminary total student enrollment in MCPS from Sept. 30 is 165,439. The September 2019 preliminary data show that MCPS had an increase of 2,759 students compared to the 2018-2019 school year. Smith said staff had projected an increase of about 900 students. Much of the growth is in the elementary school level, and many of the additional students are international, Smith said.

Board Vice President Patricia O’Neill questioned the degree of accuracy of recent enrollment projections. MCPS had hired a consultant during the last year to monitor enrollment and calculate enrollment projections for future years.

During the meeting in which staff introduced Smith’s recommended Capital budget and CIP, Smith said that the difference between the projection and the actual enrollment was a result of an influx of new students enrolling between July and September this year.

Smith answered O’Neill and said that the unexpected increase is partly due to incoming international students.

“History (of enrollment) doesn’t help us at all when it comes to students coming from international admissions,” Smith said about enrollment projections. “That’s going to be a question for us now as we look toward school year 2021.”

More than half of the students joined the school system after the end of June, which adds another variable to the mix, Smith said.

If one compared the projected enrollment with enrollment numbers collected at the end of the 2018-2019 school year instead of in September, the expected and actual enrollment increases would be closer together.

Enrollment increased by about 2,000 students annually between 2007 and 2018.

MCPS’ recent rate of increase in enrollment dropped below projections during the 2018-2019 school year, according to a report by WAMU 88.5 FM in January. This school year, it reached the 2,000 student mark once again.

Back in 2015, before the MCPS Board of Education hired Jack Smith, then-interim superintendent Larry Bowers laid out the expanding student enrollment.

In November 2015, Bowers said enrollment increased by 18,710 students since the 2007-2008 school year.

Bowers’ report of the enrollment increase would average to more than 2,300 additional students per year during that period.

Another one of the items staff presented to the board was a summary of the boundary study that involved three schools, Forest Mills, Montgomery Mills and Pinecrest elementary schools, followed by the superintendent’s recommended options for school assignment based on the study.

MCPS conducts boundary studies when school construction projects that add capacity, or room for more students, are nearly complete, so staff can suggest where to assign different students.

The Seneca Valley High School expansion is nearing completion, and so MCPS conducted a boundary study while hosting community meetings with parents, students, and residents in the area served by the schools.

Next, the board is scheduled to hold hearings on the CIP as well as the boundary studies. It also will have a hearing on the systemwide boundary review analysis, contracted out by MCPS procurement to review how MCPS determines school boundaries.

Members of the public will have the opportunity to give testimony or comment about the proposed budget and boundary studies until mid-November by signing up online. The board work sessions for the budget are scheduled after the hearings, followed by the board vote for approval in late November.

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