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Five Questions With … Bruce Crispell, Director, Division of Long-Range Planning

November 5, 2013

Five Questions With … Bruce Crispell, Director, Division of Long-Range PlanningThis week’s five-question interview is with Bruce Crispell, who hails from Ithaca, N.Y. Crispell earned a diploma from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. His first job was as a photographer in the public relations office at Cornell University (he shot weddings on the side). While working, he got free tuition toward a bachelor’s degree in communication arts. But with a love for cities and planning, he ended up at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, getting a master’s in urban and regional planning. He found the MCPS job by searching the classified ads.

The majority of his work is projecting student enrollment, but his division also looks at trends in diversity of the student population; develops long-range facility plans to meet capacity and instructional program needs; handles facility and boundary studies and works with the county to get school sites for future projects. His work was crucial in the development of Superintendent Joshua Starr’s six-year Capital Improvements Program, which was released last week.

Crispell loves graphs and takes a lot of razzing about the packets he makes up for meetings. He keeps a good sense of humor about it and says that forecasting is interesting, “seeing who came in at the numbers and who didn’t and why.”

How can you be so sure about what’s going to happen in the future? What’s the process in figuring this all out?

Over the summer, we look at broader trends. We talk to builders about what’s coming in the development pipeline; we’ll get up to date on new housing construction. We’ll look at the county master plan and get ready to factor all of that into what we look at for schools.

We look at housing market trends and what other folks who do research are thinking about as far as economic strengths and weaknesses and how they apply to jobs and housing markets. It’s very hard to predict too far out. We’ve had a mixed bag of slow recovery. That doesn’t factor into any one school but it gives me a sense of what amount of migration to expect.

After we get the enrollment numbers from the first couple days of school, we begin to look at the trends that have emerged with that data. When the forecasting begins in early September, I have all the schools’ information and can look out two, three, four years. I can determine what’s a reasonable amount of pushing forward of all those students to the next grade level. Now, we’re working on next year’s numbers and the numbers for six years from now.

The one-year forecast is revisited in the spring. That’s especially critical for staffing and placement of relocatables in overutilized schools. That gets finalized on March 1.

Are you ever wrong?

Sure I’m wrong; it’s just by degrees.

Most of the time, the [school] projections fall within plus or minus five percent of what I predicted. So if I predict an enrollment of 600, that’s plus or minus 30 kids and I’m usually closer than that. If I’m off by more than five percent, I try to accommodate it in the next year’s forecast.

I’m still employed, so I figure I’m getting close enough.

You seem like a pretty low-stress guy. What character traits do you need to do this job well?

I think you need to be able to explain it to people and not have a lot of hubris like, ‘This is it. Don’t bother me.’

I talk to lots of PTA people and principals; they want me to be accurate. I get a lot of advice. It’s very busy into the fall, but I don’t let the uncertainty get to me. I don’t agonize over it [the CIP] once it’s out. Plus, I revisit it every single year, so I can make corrections every year. It’s really an evolutionary process.

From Nov. 1 to the end of January, principals are invited to contact me if they have any concerns. They almost always feel the forecast is too low. Naturally it will affect their staffing, and maybe they won’t get a relocatable they would have hoped they could get.

I’m trying to be as accurate as possible. I’m happy to hear from them. I’m not bound to my original forecast. Things can change over the course of a school year and they know their communities. They tell me a lot of anecdotal information that would be impossible for me to know about otherwise.

When some communities see portables in a school over capacity, I’ll hear ‘Well, if someone had predicted correctly, then why didn’t they anticipate the need for these portables?’ But that is not the case. We did show enrollment growing but we didn’t have the funds to address the deficit. There’s always a big gap between what’s needed and what’s affordable.

Do you feel like we’re plateauing in terms of growth?

In Montgomery County, births reached a peak in 2007 of 13,843. In 2012, there were 13,064 births (that’s about 37 births a day or one every 40 minutes). Births are a major driver of kindergarten enrollment.

Most demographers think the birth rate coming down is temporary and will be going back up again. I think it’s going to recover and grow because population is growing in the county. As long as the economy improves and more young people are moving here, it will go back up.

Since I’ve been here, we’ve grown by 60,000 students. We’ve built 33 elementary schools, 17 middle schools and six high schools in 29 years. You can’t have that much growth without changing boundaries and changing demographics.

What do you do when you’re not at work?

Photography is a major hobby of mine. I like taking pictures of urban environments. The hubbub of urban scenes; I find that exciting. I also like nature and landscape photography. I play tennis at least once a week. I love movies; I just saw Gravity. I didn’t like it so well. My wife and I try to take advantage of D.C.; we spend quite a bit of time there going to the theater and out to restaurants.