Mayor Bridget Newton hopes to temporarily stop the council’s consideration of the city’s adequate public facilities standards (APFS) for schools in order to wait for county and state input.
The APFS for schools determines how much school capacity must be available for residential development to move forward in the city. On Nov. 17, Councilmember Tom Moore made a presentation arguing for aligning the city standards with the county standards, which some consider more lax toward developers.
At the council’s public hearing on Jan. 5, Newton said the county will soon convene a workgroup to look at school standards and she would prefer to wait to see the results of that before moving forward.
She also said she intends to write to the Maryland Attorney General for an opinion on the council’s authority to change the APFS in the first place. Don Hadley, chair of the city’s Planning Commission, told the mayor and council in December that a recent reconfiguration of state law as well as opinion from the attorney general to the city of Mt. Airy indicates the APFS falls under the master plan which is ultimately Planning Commission territory.
The city attorney reviewed Hadley’s reasoning and said the mayor and council have control because the APFS is a resolution implementing Rockville’s comprehensive plan, rather than part of the plan itself. Newton said she still wants the attorney general opinion and believes she has the authority to write to the state as the presiding officer of the council, even without majority support.
“I really think it would be the smartest thing we could do to step back and make sure that we are on the right path and that we do have the authority that some of us think we have,” Newton said.
In the meantime, former mayors and city officials as well as residents and developers weighed in at the public hearing.
In advocating for changing the standards, Moore has said the standards have hurt the city because the county is less inclined to fund city schools. Rockville evaluates program capacity for two years from the time an application is approved and does not allow development to bring the projected enrollment to more than 110 percent of program capacity per school. Rockville also looks at capacity per school. In contrast, the county evaluates program capacity for five years from the application date, sets the limit at 120 percent and looks at capacity on average for each cluster.
Rose Krasnow, mayor from 1995-2001, said the county standards would have fewer negative consequences for the city than the current standards.
“The city has no control over construction of new schools since that is strictly a county responsibility,” she said at the hearing. “They view Rockville’s attitude as somewhat antagonistic and not willing to work with them.”
But others involved in the original adoption of the APFO in 2005, such as former councilmember John Hall, said it is disingenuous to describe the APFO as “harmful” to the city.
“What we have is a well-founded, well-researched, rational set of standards regarding school capacity when it comes to the APFO and I really encourage folks to recognize that these suggestions that somehow Rockville’s standards have harmed the city are entirely without merit. It’s really a misleading argument to suggest that that’s the case. The county has made it clear to us has absolutely no impact whatsoever on their approach to capital improvement funding,” Hall said.
Former Mayor Larry Giammo, also involved in the original adoption during his terms from 2001-2007, said it is also a myth the standards have hurt the city. He said the 13 most overcrowded schools are not in Rockville and only two of the top 30 are. In addition, the county recently funded an addition to Julius West Middle School and is pushing for a fifth elementary school in the Richard Montgomery cluster.
“If you were the captain of a boat and the boat was given to you so you had no control over how big the boat was, and you have a long line down the dock of people wanting to get on your boat, at some point, wouldn’t you want to say ‘enough, I can’t have any more people on the boat. It’s going to sink,’” Giammo said.
But others originally supportive of adopting the APFO now want it to be changed. Steve Edwards, a Rockville resident since 1976 and on the board of the Chamber of Commerce, said the APFS takes away the city’s “leverage” with the county.
“It has become very apparent that the school board does not recognize the APFO in considering funding projects,” he said at the hearing.
Some also said development is necessary for the city to thrive and would benefit the schools. Kelly Blynn, a campaign manager with the Coalition for Smarter Growth, said she supported aligning the city and county standards to create walkable, transit-oriented communities.
Andrea Jolly, president and CEO of the Rockville Chamber, said the standards do not help schools, hurt business and so hurt the city overall.
But to Giammo, slowing overcrowding is just as important to development and the planning issues need to be thought about at a broader county planning level.
“It’s disappointing to hear folks from the business community saying those kinds of things because at the end of the day high quality public education is essential to success of business community,” Giammo said. “If anything, ensuring that schools don’t get overcrowded in the long run is about the best thing for business possible.”
Residents have also advocated going to the county to work for lowering the county’s standards, which allow schools to reach 120 program capacity — the highest of any county in the state.
Moore has said he’s supportive of that but changing the standards to align with the county is the first step in moving the conversation to the county council.
The city first passed the APFO, the ordinance related to the standards, in 2005 after about a year of talking to different stakeholders, including developers and residents. The city of Gaithersburg also passed its own APFO that took effect in 2007.
The council amended the APFS in 2011 to exempt the addition of portable classrooms and delineate when the county test could apply to some applications rather than the city test.
In 2011, now-Councilmember Julie Palakovich Carr chaired a committee to review the APFO and APFS and issued recommendations about how the city can be more transparent, keep track of enrollment and advocate at the county level for updated numbers and Rockville projects.
The committee also supported the two-year rather than five-year capacity evaluation.
In 2012, the Planning Commission recommended the city keep the key components of its APFS for schools and reiterated those recommendations in a December memo to the mayor and council.
The city plans to hold a second public hearing on the city’s APFS on Jan. 26.
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