Abby Zan, a WXY consultant, talks about the MCPS boundary analysis. Credit: screenshot via MCPS

During a virtual town hall meeting on Thursday night, Montgomery County Public Schools officials answered students’ questions about how an ongoing review of school boundaries might affect them.

Of the approximately 15 questions, most focused on whether there would be short-term changes to school boundaries that would lead to longer or shorter commutes to school or break up established school communities.

MCPS’ and consultants’ answers were clear: No.

“I understand that concern because change is difficult and can be scary, but there won’t be any surprises from this,” said Essie McGuire, executive director of the MCPS Office of the Chief Operating Officer. “… There won’t be any surprise boundary changes at the end of this and people don’t have to be worried there are unexpected or surprise changes in the next few months. That’s not going to happen.”

The online forum featured a presentation from consultants — the same one given during a round of recent community meetings — and the opportunity for students to submit questions about the analysis.

The event was part of the second phase of the project and was one of several “targeted outreach meetings” scheduled for the next month. The meetings are intended to gather feedback from “hard-to-reach communities” that generally can’t or do not attend larger community meetings.

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The Montgomery County Board of Education voted in January 2019 to hire a consultant to conduct a review of all MCPS school boundaries. The goal, board members say, is to evaluate how current boundaries “support or impede” students’ access to diverse schools, schools that aren’t crowded, and schools within walking distance of their homes.

The consultants hired, WXY Architecture + Urban Design, are expected to release a mid-analysis report within the next week. A final report is due in June.

During Thursday’s forum, McGuire and WXY staff member Abby Zan reiterated several times that the analysis will not result in any boundary changes.

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If, after reviewing the information in the final report, the school board wanted to change any boundaries, it would have to authorize a separate boundary study, McGuire said.

“This analysis is, in itself, not going to reassign students specifically,” McGuire said. “If we have a boundary study going on that will reassign students, we are careful to engage families. … You’ll know if there’s a boundary study happening that affects you.”

Students also asked questions about how consultants’ analyze diversity and the methodology behind how many students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals.

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McGuire also emphasized that the school district focuses on maximizing the number of students able to walk to school when drawing school boundaries.

That is more feasible in urban areas of the county like Bethesda or Silver Spring that are more compact, compared to upcounty areas like Poolesville and Damascus, she said.

The average time the approximately 100,000 students who ride MCPS buses now is about 20 minutes, McGuire said, but it can range anywhere from “very few minutes” to 45 minutes.

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“We actually have a lot of diversity and range in how long our bus rides are … so it really depends on where you live and I think that’ll be the case in the future,” McGuire said.

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