MCPS lawyers seek dismissal of part of boundary change appeal

MCPS lawyers seek dismissal of part of boundary change appeal

Community members are challenging upcounty changes

| Published:

Lawyers for the Montgomery County Board of Education have asked that part of an appeal attempting to overturn boundary changes made in November be dismissed.

In December, community members filed an appeal with the state Board of Education to overturn the school board’s decision to redistrict approximately 2,000 students in Clarksburg and Germantown.

They allege 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 says the school board violated the state Open Meetings Act in making boundary change decisions.

The lawsuit cites a text message, allegedly sent by board member Jeanette Dixon to a “concerned parent” after the boundary changes were made. The message, according to the lawsuit, allegedly said, “I do wish I could share with you what went on behind the scenes related to all of this. It is not what you surmise especially how you perceive Mrs. Smondrowski was treated …”

The appellants argue the text message indicates school board members held private, undisclosed meetings to discuss the boundary study.

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 was sent out for comment for five months before the changes were made. 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.”

The school board’s response, provided to Bethesda Beat by the Office of Administrative Hearings, does not say whether the board met in private. However, it argues that the state Board of Education does not have jurisdiction to Open Meetings Act complaints or school district policy setting and execution.

The response cites several previous state board decisions in which the board has said it does not oversee the implementation of the Open Meetings Act and local policies.

“There is little question that the public participated extensively in the revisions to [the boundary change policy], including during the 11 days between tentative adoption and final adoption of the policy, and little question that the purpose of public participation is so the County Board can take that feedback into account when it adopts policies; that is, public comment is for the benefit of the County Board as it exercises its discretion in the adoption of policies governing the conduct, management, and educational policies of public schools,” the school board response says.

The state Board of Education will review the appeal and arguments from both sides. The state board considers the actions 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

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