Friday, December 11, 2015

The TP-SS School Capacity Crunch (and the Piney Branch Pool)

Takoma Park-Silver Spring is experiencing a school space crunch. Public schools are overcrowded and the problem is getting worse. The school system is taking steps to add capacity, particularly at the elementary level. But where and how? These are open questions. Should Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) open a new school in our end of the county, or perhaps add classrooms at schools that include Piney Branch Elementary School (PBES) in Takoma Park? The answer -- the approach taken -- will have repercussions for decades to come. And as an aside, the decision will determine the fate of the widely-used PBES swimming pool.

School space is a capital cost so proposed overcrowding remedies are covered in the FY17 capital budget and 2017–2022 Capital Improvements Program. (The county's and schools' FY17 fiscal year starts July 1, 2016.) You can find the Board of Education's FY17 capital requests online. In that document, the BOE asks funding for additions at East Silver Spring, Montgomery Knolls, Pine Crest, Piney Branch, and Woodlin elementary schools to relieve the overutilization of several elementary schools in the lower portion of MCPS's Downcounty Consortium.

"Overutilization" is an artful word, isn't it? It hints that school families are to blame for the capacity issue. Regardless, MCPS officials are on our side. Note a memorandum included in the BOE capital request doc, starting on page 16, that directs,
"That a feasibility study be conducted to explore the possibility of opening an elementary school on the former Parkside Elementary School site, or another nearby former elementary school site, to relieve over-capacity at nearby schools."
The former Parkside Elementary School in Silver Spring
The Parkside school building is currently used as a Montgomery Parks headquarters. Reopening Parkside is a creative solution, originated by BOE Member Jill Ortman-Fouse, a welcome alternative to Interim Superintendent Larry A. Bowers' proposed approach.

This is where the Piney Branch ES pool connection comes into play. The superintendent's proposed PBES classroom expansion, dealing with a projected PBES deficit of 129 seats by 2021-2, would entail eliminating the pool. In particular, the superintendent says "A feasibility study will need to be conducted to explore razing the existing pool to construct an addition in the future. With the smallest site of any school in the county, at 1.9 acres, there is no room on the Piney Branch Elementary School site to accommodate relocatable classrooms."

Last summer’s rally to save the PBES pool.
(Photo by Bill Brown)
While County Councilmember George Leventhal and Board of Education Member Chris Barclay have asked MCPS to study building new PBES classroom space above the pool, keeping the pool open in the expanded school building, frankly that could be an awkward arrangement and there's no assurance MCPS could make it work. By contrast, if MCPS rehabilitates the Parkside building as a school, there will be less pressure to expand other consortium schools such as PBES. Again, reopening Parkside is a creative solution, a welcome alternative to the superintendent's proposed approach.

A Capital Improvements Program request transmittal letter, addressed to the county executive and council president and signed by Board of Education President Patricia B. O'Neill, acknowledges the system-wide need:
"For the 2015-2016 school year, MCPS is experiencing its eighth straight year of significant enrollment growth. Official September 30, 2015, enrollment is 156,674 students for a one-year increase of more than 2,800 students. Since the 2007-2008 school year, enrollment has increased by 18,929 students with most of the increase at the elementary school level."
And it describes the alternative BOE approach, requesting CIP inclusion of $100,000, "to conduct a feasibility study to explore an elementary school reopening on the former Parkside Elementary School site or another nearby former elementary school site," to relieve overcrowding, the alternative that would focus construction on one site rather than many and, as an aside allow the PBES pool to continue operating.

Support from County Executive Ike Leggett and from the Council will be critical. MCPS proposes annual capital and operating budgets, but it's the Montgomery County Council that has final say (subject to a state-imposed "maintenance of effort" constraint that the county fund the same dollar amount per pupil as the prior year).

The county officials' decisions are important. Schools are practically the only local institutions that draw and intermix individuals from diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Only public libraries and sports leagues have similar potential, but our communities' children spend far more time at school than they do anywhere else other than at home. Facility, boundary, and catchment area choices shape our communities.

Want to weigh in? The Board of Education will hold public budget hearings, on the capital and operating budgets, on January 7 and 14, 2016. Sign up to testify, starting December 14. And you'll be able to testify at county council public hearings in the spring.

Before then, attend or watch the Takoma Park City Council's December 14, 2015 meeting. The council is slated to have an MCPS presentation, followed by a worksession discussion -- an Overview of Montgomery County Public School Capacity -- at 8:05 pm. I hope and expect the council will take up a resolution, at a later meeting, providing city comment on MCPS facilities plans. Public comment is at 7:30 pm. Do communicate your view to the city council.

Finally, regarding the MCPS operating budget: A good place to come up to speed is MCPS's new Budget 101 Web site, which aims to answer many of the questions that parents, students, staff, and community members have asked about the MCPS Operating Budget, according to Interim Superintendent Bowers. The superintendent has proposed $2.45 billion FY17 operating budget, online on the MCPS Web site.

There is no better social investment than adequate school funding, well placed, if your goals are to provide social and economic opportunity to all segments of our population, to immigrants and established residents, whether well-off or struggling, regardless of cultural background. Facilities choices should be linked to a broad set of community needs. One such choice is at hand, the approach we'll take to adding downcounty school capacity. The right choice is to explore the Parkside option by funding the BOE requested feasibility study.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

End Maryland preemption of local firearms regulation

Below is a letter I sent to Senator Jamie Raskin and Delegates Sheila Hixson, David Moon, and Will Smith, who represent District 20 in the Maryland General Assembly --

To: Sheila Hixson <>, Jamie Raskin <>, David Moon <>, Will Smith <>
Subject: End Maryland preemption of local firearms regulation

Hello Sheila, Jamie, Will, and David,

        I'm sure Takoma Park, Montgomery County, and many other Maryland cities and counties would like to take concrete steps to address our country's gun-violence epidemic, locally. But cities and counties can't act because Maryland code preempts localities from passing gun laws (Md. PUBLIC SAFETY Code Ann. § 5-104; full text below). How about initiating steps to change that bit of state law, to allow cities and counties to enact regulations that are more restrictive than the state's?

        I'll note that Maryland state laws that restrict certain firearms categories have been upheld in court this year, and just this week the Supreme Court declined to take up the ruling of a federal appeals court in Chicago, which upheld a City of Highland Park 2013 ban on semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. These facts suggest to me that key arguments against a Maryland state law change won't wash. The court rulings establish that localities may regulate firearms and that Maryland may enact laws more restrictive in regulating weapons than federal laws.

        I'd welcome working with you to address the very important issue of gun violence. Please do let me know your reactions to my request.

        Thanks and best wishes,

                                        Seth, 301-873-8225

§ 5-104. Preemption by State

   This subtitle supersedes any restriction that a local jurisdiction in the State imposes on a sale of a regulated firearm, and the State preempts the right of any local jurisdiction to regulate the sale of a regulated firearm.

Atlantic Guns, Rockville, Maryland

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Share the Vote: Montgomery County Board of Education Elections

Delegate David Moon (D-20) is the primary sponsor of proposed 2016 Maryland legislation that would enable Montgomery County to enroll new voters in county Board of Education (BOE) races.

I'm for it! There are strong, legitimate, and compelling reasons that non-citizens, and perhaps also 16 and 17 year olds, should be allowed to vote in local races that concern them -- BOE races per David's MC 25-16 bill draft, and perhaps also elections for Montgomery County Council and Executive.

The Montgomery County state legislative delegation held a hearing Monday evening, November 30, on a variety of county bills, MC 25-16 among them. At David's suggestion, I testified at the hearing, as did Takoma Park City Manager Suzanne Ludlow, relaying the city's favorable position, and a number of others. Of course Takoma Park supports this latest instance of the inclusive politics! As I note in my testimony, below, we have had non-citizen voting since 1992, and further expanded the franchise in 2013, to 16 and 17 year olds and on-probation and on-parole felons.

The case, then, for bill MC 25-16 --

I favor bill MC 25–16, enabling legislation that would allow the Montgomery County Council to establish voter qualifications specific to Montgomery County Board of Education races. This right is a limited form of the same right that Maryland municipalities have enjoyed for many years, to establish voter qualifications for their own elections. 

The City of Takoma Park exercised this right in 1992, allowing non-citizens to vote in city elections, after a 1991 Share the Vote campaign led to a favorable referendum vote. 

In Takoma Park, non-citizen voting works. The city clerk maintains a local registration database, separate from the state voter rolls. Election judges are easily able to handle the two classes of voters, state-registered and city-registered.

Takoma Park further expanded the electoral franchise in 2013, when Councilmember Tim Male and I, then a city council representative, introduced successful legislation to extend the vote in city elections to 16 and 17 year olds and to on-probation and on-parole felons and to establish same-day registration and voting during early voting and on election day. 

In Takoma Park’s 2015 city election, we had 105 registered 16/17 year olds, 47 of whom voted, a 44.8% rate. We had 523 registered non-citizens, of whom 71 voted. 

I don’t believe that, in 23 years of non-citizen voting, anyone has ever been deported for voting in Takoma Park or been denied naturalization. 

The city also uses instant run-off voting, instituted in 2006 after a referendum, and a referendum this year directed the council to move city elections to even years, to coincide with county, state, and national November general elections, if the city’s distinctive voter qualification rules can be maintained. We are optimistic that the city will work out a mechanism to support the different classes of voters.

In 2012, Maryland Delegate Patrick L. McDonough tried to strip cities of the ability to allow non-citizen voting. His legislation failed. As Montgomery County Councilmember George Leventhal said that year, in opposing the delegate’s bill, “A foreigner might have a different foreign policy interest, but when you are talking about choosing a mayor or a city council member, your interests are equal to your neighbor’s.”

The same thought applies to local Board of Education races. Montgomery County non-citizens send their children to public schools and pay taxes that educate others’ children. Their interests, in the BOE races, are equal to their citizen neighbors’. They deserve a vote.

MC 25-16 is about inclusion of an underrepresented, interested segment of Montgomery County’s population. It’s about engagement, about creating a sense of community belonging for recent immigrants. There are few downsides. Please endorse and support MC 25-16.