MCPS pushes back consortium's start to 2004
The Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) voted on Oct 16 to delay action on the already controversial Down-County Consortium plan, MCPS's proposed solution to Blair's overpopulation problem. The decision renders Blair without overcrowding relief until at least the fall of 2004.
Blair community members allege that poor planning, disregard for community input and budget shortfalls have plagued the development of the consortium, causing the delay. "I believe that [MCPS Superintendent Jerry] Weast and his staff have misled the community," said Dan Parr, a former Blair PTSA president. "They currently cannot provide a good answer to the overcrowding at Blair," he said.
The consortium—which is to include Blair, Einstein, Kennedy and Wheaton high schools along with a reopened Northwood High School—would place a signature program, a program that gives each school its own academic theme, at each of the participating high schools. Students in those school districts would be given the option of deciding which school to attend. Beginning with the class of 2008, incoming freshmen will select their high school based on the signature program they wish to attend.
The delay in the consortium can be attributed to the consortium design as well as to construction at other area high schools. "We're just not ready with the signature programs yet," said Walter Gibson, director of the Down-County Consortium.
Another reason for the delay is that Northwood High School, which is now used as a holding school for Bethesda-Chevy Chase (B-CC) High School as its home building undergoes renovation, cannot be reopened by 2003 because of construction delays at B-CC. After B-CC leaves the Northwood building, Rockville High School is scheduled to move in for two years while its facility is remodeled.
The postponed reopening of Northwood means that Blair, which is already 300 students over capacity, will continue to have a shortage of space for several more years. Principal Phillip Gainous has predicted that portable classrooms will be necessary next fall to temporarily relieve overcrowding at Blair.
Parr said another reason for the consortium delay is a school system budget shortfall that Weast estimates in The Gazette at over $50 million.
An additional concern, according to Gainous, is that money now earmarked for the consortium could be diverted to the proposed Jaime Escalante charter school if the BOE decides to endorse it.
Several Blair community leaders say that, adding to their frustration about the consortium's delayed start, they did not have enough influence in designing the consortium.
The Community Advisory Committee, formed in 1999 to address Blair's overcrowding problem, was presented with 12 proposals to ease crowding, including the creation of the Down-County Consortium.
However, the committee, made up of Blair parents, community members and representatives from other area high schools, was never given the option of including B-CC or Walter Johnson high schools in the suggested consortium despite the proximity of these two schools to Blair, according to Marilyn Shoenfeld, co-president of the Blair PTSA.
Shoenfeld believes a consortium option that included B-CC could have been successful. But MCPS officials were not interested in this kind of a plan, she said. "We were told that it was not politically feasible to include Walter Johnson or B-CC or anyone else on that side of the county in the consortium," said Shoenfeld.
The reluctance stemmed in part from school boundary decisions made in the early 1990s, Shoenfeld said. "There was a lot of strong opposition [from the B-CC community] to redistricting Blair students to B-CC," said Shoenfeld. A fear of similar opposition, according to Shoenfeld, is what prevented MCPS and the BOE from including B-CC or Walter Johnson in plans for the Down-County Consortium. Gainous has previously said that he felt some of that opposition was racially motivated.
Heidi Coleman, an area vice president for the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and a part of the Community Advisory Committee, said that high school consortiums are often created to bring together schools with large numbers of minority and low-income students with schools that have more affluent populations.
However, the Blair, Einstein, Kennedy, Northwood and Wheaton consortium would combine schools that have similar demographics and many of the same problems, according to Coleman. The addition of B-CC or Walter Johnson high schools, which have more affluent populations and fewer students with special needs, would balance the mix of schools in the consortium, said Coleman.
Grouping schools with large low-income and minority populations is not necessarily a problem, according to Gibson. "I don't see the demographics of students as a liability but as a strength on which to build," he said.
Matt Yalowitz. Matthew Yalowitz, a junior in the Communication Arts Program, is enjoying the school year as a page editor on the staff of Silver Chips. In his spare time from Chips, Matthew enjoys fencing, running cross country and helping to get the Blair Student Democrats Club … More »