2021 | Schools

A look back at the MCPS countywide boundary analysis

Final report released last week after year delay

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boundary map

A map of MCPS boundaries

via MCPS

Following the release of a final report culminating more than two years of work analyzing Montgomery County school boundaries, it’s not clear how the results will be used. But, looking back, one thing is clear: The project drew a sharp dividing line in the community, sparking heated debate and invoking passionate testimony from all sides as residents debated the value of school diversity compared to students being enrolled in schools nearest their homes.

The countywide boundary analysis — the first of its kind in more than two decades — began in January 2019, on the back of a resolution from the then-student member of the school board. It aimed to analyze how boundaries — used to determine which schools students attend based on their home address — support or impede students’ access to diverse, adequately enrolled schools within walking distance of their homes.

From the start, district leaders said the project would be an analytical exercise and that it would not result in recommended or immediate changes. Still, some community members were skeptical and concerned that the analysis would ultimately result in boundary changes that would require children to be “bused” long distances to schools farther away, in an effort to diversify schools’ student bodies.

Some others were frustrated there wouldn’t be any recommended changes, and worried the district would complete the exercise, then shelf the results without taking any action to improve diversity or overutilization of some schools.

The $475,000 project, when first proposed, garnered some interest, but interest and tension increased throughout the winter of 2019 as large-scale forums were held to gather feedback about the project.

Over the course of the analysis, dueling Facebook groups emerged, gathering thousands of members with varying ideas and perspectives. Each side took swipes at the other, and as school board candidates emerged for an election in 2020, several built their campaign around boundary issues.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, delaying the release of both the interim report and ultimately the final report by a year, focus shifted from the analysis to other pressing education matters, like virtual classes and preparations to return to buildings.

Public events were put on hold for several months before the project resurfaced in the late fall of 2020. The final report was released last week.

School board members have said no immediate, large-scale changes are planned, but the analysis will be used to guide community-level boundary studies as they emerge.
Some members have also said the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on districtwide enrollment, which has dipped, will also need to be considered as part of the next steps.

Below is a timeline, looking back at key moments of the boundary analysis.

Jan. 9, 2019: The Montgomery County Board of Education authorizes an outside review of its school boundaries countywide. The proposal was introduced by the student school board member at the time, Ananya Tadikonda, who cited increasing enrollment and pockets of “de facto segregation” as the reason the review was needed. The only school board member who voted in opposition to the review was District 2 member Rebecca Smondrowski.

April 5, 2019: A group of community members who had gathered at Quince Orchard High School for a forum about the project spoke out against redistricting. Some raised concerns that were later blasted as “racist” and “segregationist” by saying minority students “won’t be able to keep up and they won’t study” if moved to more affluent, less diverse schools. Other parents said white families are being punished for “working hard and doing well and choosing to live in a certain community.”
The meeting marked a critical turning point for the project, prompting more people on all sides of the debate to become involved. Attention on the analysis heightened in the weeks and months following. Some, including MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith, condemned the comments made during the meeting.

July 1, 2019: MCPS releases the scope of work for the countywide boundary analysis. The document outlined that consultants hired for the project would be asked to assess:
• The degree to which current boundaries facilitate or impede equitable use of facilities across the county
• How boundaries promote or impede creating a diverse student population at each school
• How current placement of magnet and choice programs helps or hurts school enrollment
• How boundaries affect how many students are able to walk to their assigned school
The final report was originally scheduled to be released by June 1, 2020. (It was later delayed by nearly a year, to May 2021, due largely to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
About a month later, on July 30, 2019, MCPS staff members disclosed to the school board that the district received only two proposals from companies interested in the project. The board opts to delay awarding a contract to “further vet proposals.”

Aug. 29, 2019: The school board awards the contract for the project to WXY Architecture + Urban Design (later rebranded to WXY Studio) at a cost “not to exceed” $475,000. MCPS declines to release the consultants’ project plan because it contains “proprietary information” that needs to be redacted.

Sept. 27, 2019: Bethesda Beat obtains a copy of the consultants’ project plan through a Maryland Public Information Act request. Documents show consultants plan to review data regarding MCPS demographics, socioeconomic trends, development and transportation; hold large-scale community meetings; analyze district policies; and develop a geospatial tool showing current boundaries and how they affect demographics, enrollment and walkability to school.

Nov. 15, 2019: Records obtained by Bethesda Beat through a Maryland Public Information Act request show MCPS received more than 1,000 public comments in six months about the boundary analysis. The comments showed a county divided. Some community members strongly supported the analysis and its objectives, while others opposed analyzing boundaries and school use at all. Some have said they supported the analysis, but were critical of how it was carried out.

Nov. 19, 2019: Hundreds of Montgomery County residents attend a forum about the boundary analysis to share their opinions about the project. MCPS security staff members said they were prepared to accommodate hundreds more, with several overflow rooms set up to view a live stream of the meeting. Earlier in the day, during a press briefing, Superintendent Jack Smith, usually quiet on boundary issues, spoke out. He said it was unrealistic to assume school boundaries will never change.

Dec. 2, 2019: Consultants hold their first community feedback meeting about the project at Gaithersburg High School, drawing hundreds of people.

Dec. 11, 2019: Tensions about the project boil over at a forum at Julius West Middle School attended by nearly 500 people. Consultants were repeatedly interrupted as they answered questions and some attendees yelled. An eighth-grade student summarized the meeting by saying: “I would never want to come to a meeting like this again. This is just people screaming and people screaming back.”

Dec. 14, 2019: After a fiery meeting earlier in the week, MCPS holds another that is calmer. But school board documents show the district is preparing for “potential litigation related to the examination and analysis of school boundary data.” There has been no formal indication during or after the process that anyone is planning to sue.

Jan. 2, 2020: As public pressure mounts, MCPS releases a 128-memo with an updated project scope that removes language suggesting consultants will recommend boundary changes, and adds more opportunities for community engagement.

Jan. 12 and 14 2020: MCPS holds two more community feedback meetings about the boundary analysis in Silver Spring and Germantown. Both meetings draw more than 350 people.
The last community meeting was held on Jan. 23, 2020 in Bethesda. That meeting had been rescheduled due to inclement weather, but still drew nearly 700 people.

Feb. 28, 2020: MCPS and consultants delay the release of the mid-project report by two weeks.
On its new expected release date, March 13, 2020, it was again delayed, this time due to the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 19, 2020: The 580-page interim report is quietly posted on the MCPS website, outlining data about schools’ history, student body diversity and enrollment. A school district spokesman told Bethesda Beat later that the report was posted on the website “in error” and was not intended to be released yet.

April 1, 2020: About a month before the project’s final report is due, MCPS says it’s “highly likely” to be delayed, again a result of the pandemic.

May 2020: As an election for three seats on the school board nears, several candidates file, running largely on their positions about redistricting issues.

May 27, 2020: Board of Education documents indicate the school board plans to delay the release of the final boundary report by six months, to Dec. 1.

Oct. 14, 2020: After a five-month stretch with no updates about the project, MCPS announces that public events about the boundary analysis will resume, albeit via Zoom. In virtual events the following week, WXY unveils its “interactive tool” that demonstrates how data vary by school. In another virtual meeting the next week, about 100 people shared feedback about the tool, saying it’s helpful to visualize enrollment data, but it could be improved.

Dec. 3, 2020: Two days after the expected release of the boundary analysis’ final report, consultants tell the school board the report is once again delayed, this time until the spring. They again cited challenges caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

April 9, 2021: News about the boundary analysis is again sparse, until April, when the school district affirms the final report is on track to be released sometime in May.

May 13, 2021: MCPS releases the nearly 200-page final report publicly. The report says MCPS could make more progress toward its ideals for school enrollment if it considered redistricting up to 10% of students throughout the county. As expected, it does not recommend any specific boundary changes, but provides insight and guidance for evaluating different factors. It “provides a framework for understanding what may be possible through a comprehensive districtwide boundary plan,” the report says. In interviews following the report’s release, some school board members say there are no plans to jump into comprehensive redistricting any time soon.

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