School overcrowding is a tough problem that needs to be addressed more proactively. Although the school population used to ebb and flow, this has not been the case in the county for many years. In 1984, the school system had 91,000 students. Today, we have more than 160,000 students. Recently, our schools have been growing at a rate of 2,400 students a year and some of our schools are significantly over capacity.
This overcrowding has occurred for a variety of reasons: The Great Recession was hard on many families so some parents who had been sending their children to private schools chose to send them to public schools instead, particularly since the public school system began offering all-day kindergarten throughout the entire county. Neighborhoods also began to see more turnover. Older parents whose children had grown up and moved away began to sell their single-family homes, often to young couples with children. And the county’s population also continues to grow due to in-migration, thanks in part to the high quality of our schools.
Further complicating this issue is the fact that, in the past, builders who sought approval for large greenfield developments were often willing to dedicate land for new schools at little or no cost. Today, we are primarily seeing infill development and the land has become far too expensive to give away.
We need to look at new ways of providing school facilities. We should consider converting vacant office buildings into new classroom spaces and co-locating more schools with parks so that the parkland can be used for student recreational and athletic activities.
We need to find new ways to help close the achievement gap between different segments of our community. I believe we need to expand pre-K. And press the state for our fair share of school construction money: that’s the only way we can keep up with our booming school population.
We need to recognize that almost a quarter of our high school graduates do not go onto college. We should offer more training programs in our high schools that will prepare these students to move directly into jobs in the county that have career potential.
The school budget, coupled with that of Montgomery College, represents more than half of the county’s operating budget. I want to study the entire school budget – both operating and capital costs — to look for efficiencies that will allow us to maintain our excellent school system so that it will continue to be a strong asset of our county.