This story was updated at 8:30 a.m. Feb. 14, 2020, to include a full list of candidates for school board seats.
On Nov. 4, a Bethesda dad, frustrated by what he felt was a lack of transparency from the Montgomery County school board during a countywide review of school boundaries, sat down and created a Facebook group for like-minded residents.
Three months later, the group has grown to more than 7,500 members. Each day, members make dozens of posts and comments discussing everything from the need for seat belts on school buses to explaining school district policies and recapping community meetings about the study.
As it has grown, the group has evolved. First, it was called “Montgomery County MD School Redistricting Opposition Group.” Later, it was changed to “Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools Without Redistricting,” and on Dec. 29, it dropped the phrase “without redistricting” from its title.
Its message has evolved from one advocating for the school board to stop the study, according to a statement posted on behalf of the group on Dec. 12, to one pushing for “well-informed, data-driven decisions.”
Recently, the group’s founder, Stephen Austin, organized the creation and launch of a new website where community members can find the “official platform” of residents with concerns about the analysis. It is also a registered 501(c)4 nonprofit, which is defined as a civic organization.
“There was a lot of demand and requests for a more concentrated area for information,” Austin said in an interview on Tuesday. “It gives people who are not familiar with the issue the full picture as we see it and provides a platform that we control the message.”
The analysis began with a school board vote in January 2019.
The purpose was to analyze boundaries and their impact on schools’ capacity, student body demographics and students’ ability to walk to school.
The consultant hired to do the project, WXY Architecture + Urban Design, based in New York, is expected to release an interim report about the analysis this month, which will include a summary of data and findings gathered so far.
The review has caused a rift in the community between residents who feel school district policy correctly weighs the importance of diversity in schools and those who disagree, arguing students should attend the schools closest to their homes.
“I think there have been a lot of false claims that this group is anti-diversity or doesn’t want a study done, and I don’t think that’s the focus of this group at all,” said Tara Silver, another parent involved in the group. “We want all of the facts and information out there, for the data to be assessed fairly and for the process to not have a predisposed disposition. We’re not against the study and we’re not against diversity.”
The Facebook group is largely made up of people who oppose the study or are skeptical because of a lack of transparency throughout the process.
It was criticized early on when some members made posts attacking current and former school board members, community members and others. Some community members found some posts inflammatory and offensive.
Austin emphasized, though, that the group is not intended to be an official platform. It’s more of a “forum for discussion,” he said, and he “can’t control everyone.”
That’s where the website comes in.
“I think we get tired of being bashed like that for a comment some random person makes on the page or on (a Bethesda Beat) article, so if people want to know where we really stand, the website is a good place for anyone to go,” Austin said. “There’s no hyperbole in the website.”
Approximately 30 people from across the county had a hand in developing the website, Austin said.
The website has several pages with background about the process, data about the impact of long bus rides on students, an option to donate to the group, and lawsuits filed in connection to MCPS boundary studies.
Austin, a candidate for the at-large seat on the school board, said none of the donations go toward his campaign or to any other candidates.
Austin appears to have the backing of many members of the Facebook group. Several members have posted ideas for strategy and insight on who to support in the April primary election. A District 4 candidate, Steve Solomon, has also received support from the group, particularly after he switched from an at-large candidacy.
Donations, which have surpassed $3,000, will be used for advocacy and advertisements and to fund public information requests, Austin said.
Ultimately, Austin said, he believes people on all sides of the debate share common ground: They want the best possible educational opportunities for all students. Where they differ is how to achieve that goal.
Austin said members of his group have been targeted and harassed, too, which breeds anger and resentment.
“Some individuals out there make a lot of extreme statements about people in our group, so it’s understandable, but, personally, where my head is right now is I think the best thing to do is ignore it because we have momentum and it’s all just noise at the end of the day,” Austin said. “Our goals are to be heard by the board, influence future decisions and look at evidence-based data to close the achievement gap, and that’s what we’re doing.”
Other candidates for an at-large seat on the school board are Mitra Ahadpour, Anil Chaudhry, Sunil Dasgupta, Paul Geller, Jay Guan, Lynne Harris, Collins Odongo, Dalbin Osario, Cameron Rhode, Darwin Romero, Pavel Sukhobok and Lumpoange Thomas.
There are two candidates for the District 2 seat on the school board: Michael Fryar and Rebecca Smondrowski, the incumbent.
There are three candidates for the District 4 seat on the school board: Solomon, Ehren Park Reynolds and Shebra Evans, the incumbent.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com