Community members protest changes to school boundary changes in November at MCPS central offices in Rockville. Credit: File photo

A group of Montgomery County residents is turning to the state Board of Education to overturn the county school board’s decision to redistrict students in Clarksburg and Germantown.

In November, the school board voted 7-1 to reassign approximately 2,000 students in the Clarksburg, Seneca Valley and Northwest high school clusters to ease severe crowding at Clarksburg and Northwest. Rebecca Smondrowski was the only board member who voted against the plan.

Seneca Valley is being rebuilt and will make the school the largest in the state at 440,000 square feet. The school will have capacity for 2,581 students, according to MCPS.

Community members’ appeal, filed Dec. 26, alleges the school board “illegally reassigned school boundaries, resulting in unlawful and arbitrary redistricting … denying those students equitable access to the educational rigor, resources and supports designed to maximize their academic success.” They ask the state board to overturn the boundary changes.

The appeal also challenges the school district’s policy that dictates how boundary changes are made.

The policy outlines four factors the board is supposed to consider during boundary studies — student demographics, geography, school enrollment and stability of school assignments over time.

The policy was updated in 2018, adding language that says the school board “should especially strive” to create a diverse student body at each school.

Appellants allege the policy is illegal because it was not released for public comment after the phrasing elevating the importance of student body diversity was added.

The policy had been sent out for comment previously for five months. The updated phrasing, however, was introduced at a board meeting on Sept. 13, 2018, and was approved on Sept. 24, 2018.

MCPS has a policy that dictates how school district policies are developed and revised. It says the school board can choose to send amended policies for additional feedback “if substantial changes are made to the policy after the initial public comment period,” but does not define “substantial change.”

In a statement Friday morning, MCPS spokeswoman Gboyinde Onijala said, “We believe that the boundary study process was consistent with our policies and applicable law.”

The redacted appeal does not disclose appellants’ names or how many people are involved, but it says they have students in a prekindergarten program, at Clarksburg Elementary School, Rocky Hill Middle School and Clarksburg High School.

They say the school board focused too heavily on achieving demographic diversity in schools that are “already racially diverse,” and not enough on ensuring that students attend the schools closest to their homes.

Appellants believe the changes don’t accomplish any “sound policy goal” and remove students from schools “where they have become established.”

“The local board’s decision rips their children from their local diverse schools and forces them to attend schools in other zip codes for unjustified reasons,” the appeal says. “… Discriminating against some individuals in pursuit of racial balancing, particularly where no constitutional-level remedy is being implemented, represents a constitutional violation of those individuals’ rights,” the appeal says.

The appeal points specifically to changes involving Neelsville Middle School. Students reassigned to Neelsville from Rocky Hill will be less safe, according to appellants.

According to a recent survey of staff, 24.1% of Neelsville respondents said they feel the school is safe for staff and students, compared to about 87% of staff respondents at Rocky Hill.

Additionally, at public hearings last year, members of the Neelsville community told the school board Neelsville’s physical condition is poor.

“Clearly, Neelsville is a troubled school, and it is rated the lowest achieving school among all schools included in the boundary study,” the appeal says.

In an interview on Friday morning, school board member Judy Docca said she believes all schools in the county have good programs and serve students well.

“No matter what the reputation of the school is, every school we have has great programs,” Docca said. “People really need to think about that. We have outstanding programs everywhere.”

The state Board of Education will review the appeal and arguments from both sides. The state board considers the regulations of the local board as “prima facie correct,” and the state board “may not substitute its judgment … unless the decision is arbitrary, unreasonable or illegal,” according to state law. It does not outline a timeline for when the state board would make a final decision.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com