In 2011, MCPS undertook a process to review its school renovation and reconstruction plan. It intended, as it has in previous reviews, to utilize the new plan for 20 years, until 2031.
Last month, the Office of Legislative Oversight (OLO) submitted a report to the Council regarding its review of MCPS’ 2011 review process. It wasn’t good. In fact it was atrocious. It fits perfectly with the patterns I’ve described, which is that reality-based issues like school capacity and student demographics have no place whatsoever in determining the priority of school renovations. Which is just nuts.
The Montgomery County school system plans to rethink its list of which schools are next in line for modernization, after a report that strongly criticized the way those decisions are made.
The ranking system is based on outdated information, marred by factual errors and favors total reconstruction over renovation, according to the July report by the county’s Office of Legislative Oversight, the research arm of the County Council.
Until the report’s release, the school system had intended to keep its list unchanged until at least 2031. But the oversight office found that other large school systems, including Baltimore County, Fairfax County and Dallas, regularly revisit and adjust their construction priorities.
“It’s definitely disturbing,” said council member Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring). “This doesn’t inspire public confidence.”
Yes, it is. Let’s look at some specific examples.
But the order of the list hasn’t changed since it was drafted in 2011, the oversight office found. That means the rankings don’t account for recent deterioration in buildings or for smaller, incremental improvements by the school system that might reduce the need for renovation or expansion.
For example, a few months after Fox Chapel Elementary in Germantown was ranked 21st on the list, the school system installed new fire sprinklers and strobe lights, the report said. Had that safety upgrade been taken into account, the school’s overall score would have been 10 points lower, boosting six other schools ahead of it in line.
Other schools have similar stories, sometimes in the other direction.
“We’ve been telling the county this for a long time. Those scores need to be revamped. What was true in 2011 is not necessarily true today,” said Laura Stewart, president of the parent-teacher association at Woodlin Elementary in Silver Spring, which is 25th on the list — at least 10 years from getting started.
Stewart said Woodlin’s 1940s-vintage building, last renovated in the 1970s, “is way overdue for a complete overhaul” of its cramped cafeteria and gymnasium.
The school is projected to be 136 percent over capacity for the coming school year. But overcrowding is not among the factors weighed in construction and renovation decisions — a policy that the oversight office questioned in its report.
This is mind-bogglingly stupid and inefficient.
My personal favorite story, though, involves Piney Branch Elementary School. One of the factors that is considered is utility use - the more that is used, so goes the logic, the more need there is for a school renovation, due to aging systems that are not energy efficient. Fine as far as it goes, but apparently somebody forgot to tell the consultant that PBES has a swimming pool in it - no other school in the county does. From the report itself:
Piney Branch Elementary School received the highest elementary school score in this parameter based on its high energy and water consumption. The methodology did not take into account that Piney Branch is the only elementary school in the County that houses a swimming pool and so its energy and water consumption is not comparable to other elementary schools. As the highest scoring school in this parameter, Piney Branch was the benchmark for all other elementary schools. Had the FACT methodology adjusted the Piney Branch score to account for the swimming pool, then the scores of all elementary schools would have changed.
Piney Branch now sits 15th on the list of elementary schools slated for renovation, based in large part on the failure to account for its pool when factoring utility expenses. In this and other areas, the OLO report also faults the MCPS methodology for relying on a single year’s worth of data, when utility costs can vary widely based on weather and other factors not related to the school’s HVAC system.
A number of other basic calculation errors have also affected where schools land on the list. No steps have been taken to correct these errors and adjust the list accordingly.
Finally, the OLO report notes a heavy bias in the MCPS process for complete reconstruction rather than renovation. Other jurisdictions studied by OLO are more balanced, including Fairfax and Anne Arundel counties in the DC area. Complete reconstruction is vastly more expensive and cuts down the number of projects that can be going on at the same time. No other jurisdictions looked at by OLO maintained a priority list for as long as 20 years, as MCPS does, without some kind of periodic review.
While it’s good to see MCPS say it will review the process in light of OLO’s report, the review won’t be very thorough. Superintendent Larry Bowers indicates that he wants to make any changes before the new County Capital Improvement (CIP) budget is submitted - in two months. Don’t expect more than a band-aid, if that, and don’t hold your breath waiting for common sense factors such as school overpopulation and demographics to get any consideration at all.
So when things get worse in the coming years, don’t act surprised - like the school segregation data I discussed several times recently - and will again soon - it’s all right there in front of us, if we’re willing to look honestly and not avert our eyes and pretend that it’s all gonna get better. Because it’s not.