A study looking at four potential sites is set to take place this year, examining whether Gaithersburg could benefit from a newly constructed elementary school.
Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) spokesman Derek G. Turner believed the yearlong study may begin in late spring and would look at whether new school construction makes sense for the area and if there is funding available.
“The last 10 years now we’ve seen (a county) average of around 2,000 new students per year, which is roughly adding a new high school to our school system in terms of kids each year,” he said. “You can imagine that is problematic. What we are seeing is it is not all evenly divided so you can’t just add 10 kids here, 10 kids there and manage the growth. We’ve seen some large growth in the Bethesda area and the Gaithersburg area and, as you get further out, the Clarksburg area. Part of that is we need to figure out as we reach capacity on all of our schools what is the next step, and the next step has to be to find a venue for our students.”
There are more than 161,000 students enrolled in MCPS this year, making it the largest school system in the state and the 14th largest in the country. Many Gaithersburg schools are at or overcapacity.
“Where we are seeing the highest growth is where we start thinking about putting schools and sometimes there is just not space in those areas so we’d also have to think about the boundary component as well,” Turner said.
The idea for the study came from city staff as they studied expected population growth, including upcoming residential developments by Saul Centers and Kimco Realty Corp. Councilmember Neil Harris noted that in the past MCPS was brought in to city discussions around when the development plans are approved to discuss capacity needs. On average, development discussion to approve may take about a year with construction starting soon thereafter. However, getting funding approval for needed space in MCPS’s Capital Improvements Program (CIP) may take six years or more.
What Harris and city staff have tried to do is compress the timeframe. As soon as they hear about an initiative that is going to add significant housing to impact local schools, they start having a conversation. “There is enough potential development that is being discussed to fill up an entire brand new elementary school,” Harris said. “We have schools all over the city that are overcrowded so we are just looking for capacity for the classrooms that we need in order to accommodate the number of students that we have and the student population that is coming.”
Last year, city staff asked for the study to be completed and gave MCPS four potential sites to house new elementary schools.
During the Jan. 2 Mayor and City Council meeting, City Manager Tony Tomasello said MCPS has been working on a site location committee to construct another elementary school in the Gaithersburg cluster. “We went through a process and a couple of sites rose to the top, which I am still not at liberty to discuss, but they are bringing in some concepts which means that it’s more serious than it was previousy.”
In the current CIP, Gaithersburg will be getting a new high school in Crown on a 30-acre site and DuFief Elementary is set to receive an addition. The proposed elementary school is not in the current CIP.
“We will advocate for what is needed to accommodate our growth, but MCPS has to make a decision of what is most effective and economical for what they are trying to do,” Harris said. “Realistically there is a huge need for classroom space throughout the county, plus there is a huge need for renovating aging schools that have maintenance issues and things that really need to be updated. There are not enough resources to go around so it is a constant matter of trying to advocate to make sure our needs are taken care of.”