A project to expand and renovate Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School seems to have dodged a proposed one-year delay, to the relief of parents and others intent on expediting improvements at the rundown building.
The Montgomery County Council on Thursday approved a package of changes and reductions to a drafted six-year capital project plan, adjustments aimed at bringing the proposal in line with what the county can afford. While the revisions did delay funding for a list of Montgomery County Public Schools projects and cut spending on maintenance and replacement efforts, Lee’s upgrades remained on track for completion in September 2021.
“I’m really happy because I feel like they saw the need, and they really pulled through and did the right thing in this case,” Laura Stewart, who chairs a capital committee for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, said of the council.
Last month, officials had talked about pushing back construction funding for the Silver Spring middle school by one year, moving the project’s anticipated completion date to September 2022.
The possibility of delay did not sit well with council member Nancy Navarro or community members who have long awaited improvements at the 50-year-old middle school. In a statement released after Thursday’s vote, Navarro said keeping Lee on track was her top priority in the capital budget.
“I think that one of the challenges with Lee is it actually does have health issues, and so that, for me, particularly is why I felt very strongly about the fact that we had to make sure it stayed on schedule,” Navarro said in a phone interview. “Because that trumps everything.”
Navarro, who has respiratory sensitivities, said the air quality issues inside Lee began affecting her breathing when she visited the school last month to check out its condition. She observed buckling floors, broken tiles and damp air inside the building. Stewart said the building has had mold problems and doesn’t have a sprinkler system.
“You do hear about some schools having some issues with pipes and maybe mold issues here and there. But I’ve never seen a school that had so many issues in so many different areas of the building,” she said.
Navarro pointed out that many children who attend Lee are affected by poverty, with nearly two-thirds of the student population qualifying to receive free or reduced-price meals. A number of these families are struggling just to make ends meet and don’t have time to advocate for keeping their school project on schedule, she said.
Stewart and parents from Lee helped rally others to ask council members not to delay construction funding for the middle school project. The loudest outcry came from parents of elementary school children who were slated to attend Lee in future years, Stewart said, but community members from Bethesda and the Walter Johnson High School Cluster also lent their support. Lee is part of the Downcounty Consortium, whose middle schools feed into five high schools in Silver Spring and Kensington.
While Thursday’s changes kept the Lee upgrades on track, it set back by one year projects for a new elementary school in the Clarksburg cluster and a new high school in Gaithersburg. Construction of planned additions at Cresthaven, Ronald McNair and Roscoe R. Nix elementary schools and an addition at Parkland Middle School also will be delayed. Council members retained funds for designing an addition at Dufief Elementary School but delayed construction money for the project, pushing its projected completion date back by one year to September 2022.
The reductions to the school board’s capital funding request also touched on maintenance and replacement projects and money for land acquisition.
The capital improvements program for fiscal 2019 to 2024 is scheduled for a final council vote on May 24.