The more Rockville's Planning Commissioners analyze and discuss the proposed changes to school capacity standards in the city's Adequate Public Facilities Ordinance, the less convinced they are of the wisdom in adopting them. Several commissioners have expressed doubt that the proposal to adopt Montgomery County's weaker 120% overcrowding cap - and assess capacity by cluster rather than by individual school - is necessary, viable, or even Constitutional.
"I would actually contend that it’s a violation of your Constitutional rights to equal protection when it comes to public schools," to measure capacity by cluster, Commissioner David Hill argued. Hill found it ironic that many MCPS policies are "based on that specific premise." Adopting the proposed changes would be "incredible. Criminal? Yeah, I suppose, if you violate someone’s Constitutional rights," Hill concluded. The matter is "a question of principle," he said.
Commissioner Jack Leiderman noted that the current language exempting senior housing from traffic standards would allow an automobile-dependent mega-retirement community the size of Leisure World to be built in the City of Rockville, and still be exempt from the standards - an oversight Leiderman described as "mind-numbingly stupid." "I think you have a good logical point about that, it makes sense," Hill concurred.
Leiderman went on to demolish the case that proponents of the changes have made on several points.
"It basically eliminates everything that the city had put into place to more accurately count school demand," he said, removing "the protection that it gave city residents." Alluding to the obvious developer support for the proposal, Leiderman suggested passage of the legislation would be "basically a complete deregulation of the development industry in the city."
Language that would allow extension of queue dates for individual developments was too weak to account for the fact that a developer could always claim that lack of school construction funds from the state of Maryland were an issue. Leiderman predicted developers could exploit that "ad infinitum. The way this is constructed, you’ve got all this language in here that looks like we’re doing something, when in fact we’re not doing squat to protect the schools, or the citizens, if this unfortunate piece of legislation were to pass," Leiderman said. "Eloquently put," Commissioner John Tyner seconded.
Use of the MCPS 5-year test and cluster averaging will be "an elaborate shell game” to cover-up the overcrowding of city schools, Leiderman said. It's the "distorting effect of cluster averaging and the 5-year test" that allows MCPS to currently run schools at 180% capacity, even when it claims a 120% cap exists. Faced with development moratoriums, Leiderman said, MCPS will cite "paper schools" where there will be capacity in 5 years. But it’s a "fictitious school" that never actually gets built, while the proposed development does. Under that scenario, "you’re not even adopting a 120 - you’re not even adopting a 180," Leiderman argued.
Citing City Councilmember Tom Moore's recent grilling of his colleagues who oppose the changes, Leiderman found a double standard on the use of data. "The leading proponent of this legislation was sort of torturing his colleagues recently about their positions not being data-driven, and I had to just laugh out loud. Because this is not only not data-driven, but it’s ignoring the data that we have, which says that the schools that operate under this are in horrible condition," Leiderman recalled. Echoing the argument of Mayor Bridget Newton, Leiderman made the case that the current APFS standards have succeeded in not only protecting Rockville students from overcrowding worse than today's, but have actually resulted in new schools getting built. "We in fact have [new schools] coming online…ahead of a lot of the other areas in the county, despite" the APFO. He said that fact suggests "the impetus behind [changing the APFS] is extraordinarily specious, and unsupported by the data. I wish that the people who are behind this would actually tell us the real reason why they want this to happen."
Tyner implored the city to consider the impact on core facilities at schools, not just classrooms. "Beall no longer has playgrounds anywhere, neither does Twinbrook," Tyner noted. Core facilities are "the things that really determine if kids get a good education or not," Tyner said. "We’re only talking about classrooms."
One other interesting point not often brought up is that tying city standards to the County would leave Rockville bound to any future changes MCPS would make to its current standards, for better or for worse. Senior Assistant City Attorney Marcy Waxman confirmed that would be the case, after Commissioner Charles Littlefield questioned why the language couldn't be simpler in noting that link.
The Mayor and Council are currently scheduled to act on the proposal in early February, and residents can speak on the matter at a public hearing this coming Monday.