Bernie Greene first discovered the strange chalk lines on the grass outside on June 15. When he asked the janitor about them, he learned that portable classrooms were being placed in front of Arcola. It took Greene two weeks to marshal the rest of the neighborhood and determine what exactly was going on.
After a long string of emails, Montgomery County Public Schools agreed to set up a community meeting. More than 60 parents and residents came to Arcola Elementary School Monday night to talk about the three portables coming to the Wheaton school’s front lawn in August, an issue that has become a lightning rod for the community’s anger over poor communication from MCPS and its fearful concern that overcrowding will bring down the school.
“We feel that we have been blindsided,” said an Arcola resident who would only identify herself as Amy because she is an MCPS teacher.
The meeting started off with calm and order, as Bruce Crispell, the director of long-range planning for MCPS, explained why Arcola Elementary School would be adding three new portables.
“It hasn’t just been your school,” Crispell said. Seventy-seven elementary schools in Montgomery County will have portables this coming school year, he added.
Arcola simply does not have enough space for its students, and MCPS, in its rush to install the portables this summer, never told the community they were coming or gave residents a say where they would be located on the school property.
“We do not have the time to sit down with everybody to go over every location at every elementary school,” said Craig Shuman, director of the division of construction for MCPS.
Since 2007, MCPS enrollment has grown by 9,000 students; 8,500 of these students are at the elementary level, Crispell said.
Julie Grimes, whose son will be entering first grade this fall, created a map with numbers from MCPS showing the capacity, projected enrollment, and number of portable classrooms at Arcola Elementary School and other elementary schools in the area. The contrast is marked. Arcola’s capacity is at 486 students; its projected enrollment is 719. Highland Elementary School and Kemp Mill Elementary School each have only an 18-student gap, Glen Haven Elementary School has a 9-student gap.
MCPS is building a permanent addition to Arcola Elementary School to handle the influx of students. The funding was included in this year’s Capital Improvements Program, but the addition will not be ready until August 2015.
But why portables? the crowd asked. Why not redistricting?
“I hate to tell you this, but it’s become a standard way of getting through this enrollment bulge,” Crispell said.
The crowd responded with anger and frustration, and everyone began talking at once. Order quickly melted away.
James Song, the director of facilities management for MCPS, stood up from where he had been sitting among the crowd, called a “time out,” and made a plea for common courtesy. Song came to the front of the room and tried to steer the conversation back to the big picture: that the county is facing a budget crunch, and that the school system is feeling the squeeze across the board. His message was clear: Arcola is not the only one with problems, and Arcola is actually in a much better situation than other schools because it got a new building in 2007.
But many in the crowd reacted negatively to Song’s comments, saying that they felt like he was “lecturing” them and obscuring the issue with budget talk. One particular comment, in which Song referred to “your precious children,” provoked immediate outrage.
Song stayed focused on his message: “Let’s deal with reality,” he said. “The school’s going to be overcrowded, and that’s a fact.” The students will be at Arcola in a little more than a month, and there must be somewhere for them to go, he added.
One parent stood up and started crying.
“I’m furious,” Martha Cruz said. The real issue, she continued, is overcrowding--not the physical presence of the portables themselves. Overcrowding will drag down the quality of education students receive at Arcola, she said.
“You need to reassess your priorities,” she told the MCPS team. “You don’t need to be condescending to a group of people who are loving parents.”
Song said that his priority for the summer is opening schools on time in August. Afterward, he said he is willing to look at ways to improve MCPS communication with the community.
“We cannot change the location of the portables at this time,” Song said. What may be open for discussion in the future though, he added, is where the existing three portables in the back of the school will be relocated once the permanent addition is built.
Song tried to dismiss the crowd’s concerns about the safety and health compromises tied up with using portables by reassuring them that an air quality team conducted annual inspections. But Amy, the MCPS teacher, said that she has seen moldy portables--and even some with mushrooms growing inside. “Teachers hate teaching in portables,” she said.
There were no microphones, and MCPS did not arrange for a translator at the meeting. A woman who volunteered to translate, Annita Seckinger, relayed that some of the parents had only found out about the meeting earlier that day, and that they felt underrepresented.
Community organizers found out when the meeting would be held on Thursday night but had no way of getting the information out to the entire school community. The county did not send out robocalls with information about the meeting until Monday afternoon, according to Principal Eric Wilson.
When the meeting ended after almost three hours, Greene, the man who first discovered the chalk lines, was talking of filing a formal complaint with the Board of Education. Greene, now retired, is a former algebra teacher and a former official at the National Center for Educational Statistics. And he was far from satisfied with the explanations of demographic estimates.
Others left appalled that Song could not offer any documentation of how his team had selected the site for the front-lawn portables--particularly why they had rejected the parking lot as a possible location.
“I just feel like they’re doing whatever they want to,” said Milton English, who has lived across the street from the school for four years. “I just feel like we don’t have a say in what happens...And that’s unfortunate because we’re the community. We live here.”
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