The Montgomery County Board of Education meets Thursday in Rockville. Credit: Caitlynn Peetz

This story was updated at 5:40 p.m. on Jan. 13, 2020. An earlier version mentioned Jason Maloni as someone who spoke during the meeting. An editor added the reference to Maloni, along with his connection to Paul Manafort, a former chairman for Donald Trump’s election campaign, and the fact that Maloni testified during special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation. Upon further consideration, Bethesda Beat has decided that those references were not relevant to this story and were not in the proper context of feedback about the boundary analysis, so that section has been removed from the story.

Exactly one year after the Montgomery County school board authorized a comprehensive review of school attendance boundaries, the board met Thursday for an update from consultants as the project nears its second phase.

Adam Lubinsky, a managing principal with WXY Architecture + Urban Design, told the school board that approximately 975 people have attended three sometimes tense community meetings about the boundary analysis, which tasked consultants with providing data about MCPS schools’ capacity, socioeconomic compositions and community members’ thoughts about the project.

Fourteen times on Thursday, consultants, MCPS staff and school board members emphasized that the analysis “will not result in recommended boundary changes.”

The project scope originally submitted by WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the firm hired for the project, said the company would recommend “cluster boundary reassignments.” The scope was changed after conversations with MCPS staff members and the school board, according to a memo released publicly in December.

Consultants and MCPS staff members on Thursday explained why the updated project scope removes consideration of traffic data and travel time.

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The analysis relies on data that is “fixed and quantifiable,” such as students’ homes distance from schools, according to Essie McGuire, executive director of the MCPS Office of the Chief Operating Officer.

“There’s a great variability in traffic over time, dependent upon the time of day, road work and other factors that change so frequently that it’s not part of a quantifiable data lens,” McGuire said. “But it’s an overstatement to say we won’t be looking at traffic at all.”

Superintendent Jack Smith elaborated, saying it’s not possible to consider traffic data because, again, there will be no recommended boundary changes.

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“When we think about this analysis, there’s no actual implementable way to talk about travel time given that we’re not going to propose moving children from school A to school B,” Smith said. “You can’t actually look at that.”

Fourteen members of the public testified about the boundary review on Thursday, some in support and some in opposition. Some called for greater transparency from the school board about the process. Some urged the school board to allow WXY consultants to make boundary change recommendations.

As people testified, members of the Rockville Police Department stood near the meeting room’s doors as a precaution. Police presence is now standard procedure for any meetings relating to the boundary analysis following a heated gathering in December at Julius West Middle School, according to MCPS staff members.

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There were no incidents at Thursday’s meeting.

Community input

WXY consultants presented data they gathered from the public at two of three community meetings held in December about the analysis.

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About 58% of attendees have kids currently enrolled in MCPS, according to WXY. Approximately 44% of respondents at the two meetings said they are “skeptical” of the process, while about 30% said they feel it is “an important effort that we need in order to look at ways to improve” MCPS. A quarter of attendees said the boundary analysis “has pros and cons and we need to be careful as we move forward.”

The need for ‘accurate information’

School board member Pat O’Neill called on two local Facebook groups — Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools and One Montgomery — to help stop the spread of “misinformation” about the project.

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The approximately 1,000 people who have attended MCPS and WXY-led community meetings are “just a drop in the bucket” of the more than 1 million people in Montgomery County, O’Neill said, and many residents are getting their information about the study solely from these Facebook groups.

“Those moderating those groups have an obligation to put out accurate information,” she said.

In recent interviews, O’Neill has said she has seen a storm of misinformation about the analysis on community listservs. She said “inflammatory” and “untrue” assertions about the project have caused unnecessary concern, fear and frustration.

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Stephen Austin, a founder of the Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools page, said in a message to Bethesda Beat that he and others do moderate posts made to the page each day, but “walk a fine line between removing questionable posts and aggressive censorship.”

“We are about to launch an official webpage where we do control the message more tightly,” Austin, a Bethesda resident, wrote. “We would love to be in direct contact with the board to get any clarification or contributions they care to share with us.”

Community meeting rescheduled

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MCPS spokesman Derek Turner announced during Thursday’s meeting that a community meeting canceled this week due to inclement weather has been rescheduled for Jan. 23. The meeting will be held at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda at 7 p.m.

There will be two rooms where staff members and consultants will provide identical presentations, according to Turner. A third room will provide a live stream of the presentation.

Another community meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.

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The final community meeting is scheduled for 7 p.m. Jan. 14 at Northwest High School in Germantown.

WXY is scheduled to provide an interim project report to the public in February, after which the project will enter Phase 2.

The second phase of the project will include the development of an “interactive tool” to simulate the impact of boundary changes. There will be more community meetings.

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A final project report is due by June.

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