The facts on Rockville’s failed school standards.

There’s a lot of noise out there on the issue of the City’s school standards, but here are the facts.

The effort to change the standards is being driven by members of the Mayor and Council who care deeply about our schools and our City.   As many of you know, Amy and I have two kids at RM, three at JW, and one at Beall. No one is more heavily invested in the success of our schools than we are.

Rockville’s APFO has failed to keep our schools from becoming more overcrowded.  It is hurting our schools and hurting our City.  It’s the Mayor and Council’s job to get rid of this failed experiment and find something that works.

The school standards Rockville wrote into its development laws in 2005 were tighter than Montgomery County’s based on two untested theories:

  1. That the standards would keep our crowded schools from becoming more overcrowded, and
  2. That the County would direct money to Rockville sooner than it otherwise would because without the funds, sections of the City would fall into building moratoria.

Nine years later, it’s clear that these theories were wrong, our standards have failed, and Rockville and its schools are paying the price.  Our schools have become substantially more crowded since 2005.  And Montgomery County has made it clear to the City that it will never direct money to us more quickly because we have standards that are different from theirs.

Rockville Town Center has been in moratorium as to new projects since the APFO was enacted, and the entire Richard Montgomery High School cluster – which includes all of Town Center and most of Rockville Pike – will be at a standstill until at least 2029 if we fail to fix our standards.  This imperils all the hard-won progress we have made in Rockville Town Center, and makes impossible the improvements we have been hoping to make on Rockville Pike.

The APFO has shut down our progress in Town Center in an attempt to stem school overcrowding, but it has failed to accomplish that goal. The problem is that it aims at the wrong target.  85% of the enrollment growth in our schools has come not from new development, but from people who move here for the good schools and fill our existing houses with children.

Likewise, Rockville’s standards have failed to bring school-construction funds to the City any sooner.  The County only funds construction when schools are over the County’s capacity standards (not the City’s).  Therefore, having a lower capacity standard than the County makes it less likely that schools in the City will be expanded or replaced.  When the County had a chance in May 2011 to dedicate money to expand Julius West and build a new elementary school for us, it decided not to do it because the funds wouldn’t lift the area out of the City’s artificially strict moratorium.

Worse, The City’s standards do not prevent development just across the city limits in the County, where there is no moratorium.  This County development places pressure on Rockville’s roads and schools without providing any benefits to the City.   In clusters like Walter Johnson HS, where much of the cluster is outside Rockville, we’ll soon be facing a situation where we’ll stop development when the high school hits 110%, but the County will keep building in the areas outside the City until it gets to 120%.  Our kids will end up going to a school that’s just as crowded, but Rockville will lose out on a lot of economic development.  This can happen in four out the five high schools Rockville kids go to: Rockville, Walter Johnson, Wootton, and Gaithersburg – all but Richard Montgomery.

The better course is to adopt Montgomery County’s school standards, as recommended by the 13 community members who studied the issue during the 2012 Rockville Summit on its Housing Working Group:

After extensive review and considerable discussion about the Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance the committee has determined policy makers should give significant consideration to modifying Rockville’s APFO to mirror that of Montgomery County’s. The primary reason for this recommendation is the impact the school occupancy portion of the APFO has on residential development. The City does not have domain over the schools. That authority lies with the county. To limit development based on something out of Rockville’s control is not in the best interest of the City.

Twenty-six community members on the Summit’s Education and School Capacity Working Group who studied the issue closely also recommended that the City “[m]odify its Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance (APFO) to harmonize with the County, especially with regard to school facilities.”

Montgomery County only acts according to its own standards, not the City’s.  If we adopt the County standards, Montgomery County will have the same incentive to invest in Rockville’s schools as it does elsewhere.  Our law will better reflect and predict what the County’s school-construction plans will be.  This will allow Rockville to more accurately plan for future growth, which is the entire point of an APFO.

Nine years of failure is enough.  The APFO school standards have not protected our children from crowded schools. All they have done is damage Rockville’s ability to manage its growth and plan for its future.  It’s time for them to go.

The Mayor and Council are holding a public hearing on these proposed changes on January 5, and I invite you to come and listen or speak.