2021 | Bethesda Beat

After final boundary report, school board members not committing to redistricting

‘It’s good information,’ one says, ‘but there’s so much unknown’

share this
Untitled design (22)

File photo

Now that a detailed analysis on Montgomery County’s public school borders is complete, it’s up to the school board to decide what happens next. And three school board members say there are no plans to jump into comprehensive redistricting anytime soon.

Montgomery County Public Schools on Thursday released the final report by WXY Architecture + Urban Design, culminating a review that started in the fall of 2019.

WXY was asked to consider how MCPS can pursue four ideals — utilization of buildings, diversity of each school’s student population, proximity of students to nearby schools, and assignment stability, which refers to students not having to switch schools.

After doing research, WXY provided insight into how to attain and balance key factors. There were no specific recommendations for boundary changes, which was not in the scope of the work that MCPS requested.

The WXY report suggested that MCPS could consider a broader look at boundary changes, countywide, rather than the localized review frequently done in response to specific schools expanding or opening.

Three school board members told Bethesda Beat Thursday that the report provided helpful insights and information, but the board will take its time in figuring out how to proceed.

“It definitely gives us a different way of thinking about things,” board member Rebecca Smondrowski said.

She said the report helped illustrate the complexity of trying to figure out the best approach for school boundaries — the decisions and factors are not simple.

Board members said there are extra complications because of COVID-19 and the effects it had on the district’s student population, which dropped during the pandemic. It could take time to figure out how many students will return.

Board member Pat O’Neill said one thing that resonated with her from the report is the idea that cluster boundaries — linking local elementary, middle and high schools together by geography — can be an “impediment” to fixing disparities at schools that are overcrowded or underused.

O’Neill said the cluster concept is “deeply ingrained” in Montgomery County, going back decades.

Any suggestion that the territory of a school cluster can be reworked to help address ideals might not be “a palatable conversation,” she said.

WXY’s report said that a “slight” increase in students’ distance from the schools they attend could be a tradeoff, so that utilization and diversity can be improved.

But O’Neill said caps on walking distances for students to get to school are established by policy — another element that might take plenty of reworking if it were to change.

Board member Karla Silvestre said WXY’s review and report reinforced the idea that a majority of parents feel strongly about keeping their children in a school near their home.

She said that one of the next significant local boundary reviews will be in connection with plans to rebuild Woodward High School on Old Georgetown Road in the next few years. The school will be overhauled to serve about 2,700 students from nearby areas, at a cost of about $120 million.

O’Neill said more boundary discussions could happen in October, when the district looks at the capital improvements program, a multiyear plan for construction projects.

“The process of changing any boundaries is not a simple one,” she said. It includes a recommendation from the superintendent, then extensive community involvement.

Smondrowski mentioned the plans for a new high school in Gaithersburg in several years, which will take in students from five areas, as another opportunity to think more broadly.

She said she is not opposed to taking a comprehensive look across the county at possible changes to school boundaries, but it’s not something to rush into.

“It’s good information,” Silvestre said of the final WXY report, “but there’s so much unknown.”