The following is the text of the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board letter to the County Council concerning School Capacity Planning within the Subdivision Staging Policy.
Dear Council President Berliner:
Thank you for this opportunity to provide comments regarding school capacity planning within the Subdivison Staging Policy. Over the past several years, the Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board (the “WMCCAB”) has expressed concerns regarding enrollment forecasts by Montgomery County Public Schools (“MCPS”) and the relationship between these forecasts and actual experiences in the schools.
We recognize how difficult it is to accurately forecast enrollment six years in advance, which the capital budget planning process requires. However, we encourage MCPS and the County to continue to improve forecasting methods and to work to make them more transparent to and understandable by the public. Transparency will give members of the community greater confidence in how the County evaluates school enrollment as part of the development review and approval process, and improving forecasting methods will give the development community greater certainty as it plans development projects and other investments in the community.
School enrollment forecasting, and the manner in which this forecasting is applied in the Subdivision Staging Policy, should ensure that there is adequate capacity in schools and that new developments are not approved for school clusters that are already significantly over-capacity. At the same time, the Subdivision Staging Policy should recognize that certain types of development have limited impacts on school enrollment but significantly contribute to the County’s tax base, and should be allowed to proceed even in areas of over-capacity.
At the WMCCAB’s September 11th Land Use and Transportation Committee meeting, Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission (“M-NCPPC”) staff updated WMCCAB members on their recent analysis of the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data, which they used to update their school enrollment forecasting assumptions. Staff indicated that while the results confirmed that many of the basic assumptions the County currently uses to estimate future enrollment are fairly accurate (i.e., estimates of anticipated students per new unit within specific planning areas), the methodology is not sufficiently refined to allow for forecasting distinctions based on unit type. This lack of refinement could be a key limitation in attracting certain forms of development (such as one-bedroom apartments in Metro Station Policy Areas) that build the County tax base without adding additional burdens to school enrollment or education costs. The County should consider options such as allowing these types of development to proceed even when located in areas of school over-capacity or waiving school-related impact fees for such units, provided such units are determined to produce limited impact on school enrollment.
Additionally, the County should continue to study single-family neighborhoods to better understand and predict the turnover in these neighborhoods, which many of us know to occur every 20 to 30 years. Understanding this boom and bust cycle would help the County to anticipate turnover waves and effect on school enrollment when longtime residents move out of a neighborhood and young couples buy their homes and move in.
In summary, we encourage the County and MCPS to continue to evaluate and improve school enrollment forecasting methods, and to strike a balance between addressing capacity issues while allowing developments that produce few students but provide significant contributions to the tax base to move forward more easily, and to refine school capacity planning within the Subdivision Staging Policy based on the improved forecasting and methods.
Thank you again for this opportunity to share our comments on this important policy discussion.
Heather Dlhopolsky, Chair, Western Montgomery County Citizens Advisory Board