Rodent infestation, portables in lots impel 2nd look at Montgomery Co. school budget priority

South Lake Elementary School in Montgomery County, Maryland, was built for just under 700 students. More than 890 students are currently enrolled.

The large student body has resulted in “portables” in the parking lot — temporary classrooms that dot the school property and force staff to find other places to park in the Gaithersburg neighborhood.

During the summer, a teacher documented images of rodents in the classroom, and parents have long complained about the heating and cooling system.

So how did the county council end up voting on a capital improvement plan that delayed a much-needed $34 million modernization plan back when the budget was finalized in May?

Montgomery County Council member Will Jawando summed it up simply.

“There are so many tough decisions, and there’s not enough money to go around, particularly in this environment,” he said.

He was referring to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of how it has affected schools and the larger economy.

On Monday, the council’s Education and Culture Committee voted to take another look at the capital improvements plan for the school system to see if the funding formula could be reworked to accelerate the plans for South Lake.

It will also consider whether an additional $6.8 million could be found to improve HVAC systems across the school districts — something that’s more urgent as schools try to ensure that buildings are safe as the system plans for the eventual return of students.

Montgomery County Public Schools opted to keep schools closed until January. The state requires the school system to revisit that decision at the end of the first quarter.

Council members Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice noted the demographics of South Lake.

On the need to push for improvements, Rice said, “It’s not just about doing it because it is a school with failing infrastructure, but it is also a school that has failing infrastructure that has a majority of Black and brown children.”

He added that most come from families who are struggling financially — 85.1% qualify for free and reduced meals.

Navarro said 70.8% of the student population is Hispanic, and she said school building conditions send a message to the community. Referring to the condition of South Lake, Navarro said, “I feel that in a county like ours, this is just really unacceptable.”

The committee voted to ask county and school budget analysts to revisit the capital improvement plans and come back in October for further discussions. The hope, said Rice, is that they could come up with a way to accelerate the schedule for improvements for completion by 2023.

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