Boundary analysis creates unusually contentious school board race

Boundary analysis creates unusually contentious school board race

Thirteen competing for one at-large seat; incumbent not running again

| Published:

Thirteen candidates are competing for one at-large seat on the Montgomery County Board of Education.

Caitlynn Peetz

Most years, the Montgomery County Board of Education election draws modest attention, other than from activist and advocacy groups.

This year, the at-large race, with no incumbent and a central debate about school boundaries, has been unusually contentious.

In November, current at-large board member Jeanette Dixon announced she would not run for re-election, prompting 13 people to file as candidates for a chance to take her place.

The primary election will be June 2. The top two vote-getters will proceed to the general election in November.

There has been a heightened focus on the race, and greater tension, because of the controversy surrounding an ongoing countywide review of school boundaries.

Over the past six months, the campaigning has intensified and dissolved into name calling, arguments and diatribes on social media — particularly for those with strong feelings on the boundary study. Supporters are jumping into the fray when their candidate is questioned or criticized, often going on the counterattack.

“I think it’s really unfortunate this race has caused so much division and tone has been so toxic,” said Nancy Navarro, a Montgomery County Council member and former school board member. “In one sense, it’s good it’s getting a lot of attention, because the school board is so important and makes really important decisions, but unfortunately, there’s been a lot of very negative, very toxic rhetoric. … My message would be that we are better than this.”

At-large candidate Stephen Austin has been at the center of one of the sharpest divides between support and opposition.

A 46-year-old father of two in Bethesda, Austin has no previous political, advocacy or PTA experience. But he has helped lead a movement challenging the validity of and motives behind the systemwide boundary analysis.

Last year, Austin created a Facebook group — Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools — that from the outset included some of the most outspoken critics of the study. The group now has more than 8,000 members.

Austin has received fierce backlash for posts he and others made in the group, but he also has a strong core of supporters.

On Monday, a group of Democratic county and state elected officials released a letter urging people not to vote for Austin, saying people should “seek candidates who want to uplift all segments of our diverse and complex student population.” The group does not suggest which candidate people should choose other than Austin.

The letter is signed by four state senators (Cheryl Kagan, Nancy King, Ben Kramer, Will Smith), eight state delegates (Lorig Charkoudian, Charlotte Crutchfield, Bonnie Cullison, Lesley Lopez, Eric Luedtke, David Moon, Kirill Reznik, Vaughn Stewart), County Executive Marc Elrich and six County Council members (Gabe Albornoz, Tom Hucker, Will Jawando, Craig Rice, Hans Riemer, Navarro).

As the primary election nears, there have been fewer posts about the analysis itself — the project has been put on hold due to the coronavirus pandemic — and more about individual school board candidates.

Sunil Dasgupta, a program director at The Universities at Shady Grove, and Lynne Harris, a teacher and former MCCPTA president, are frequently mentioned.

Harris recently received an endorsement from The Washington Post. Dasgupta has the backing of the county’s teachers union.

Jay Guan, also in the running for the at-large seat, has raised the most money, according to campaign finance reports filed with the state. He has raised $27,443, followed by Dasgupta with $22,760 and Austin with $20,730.

Harris is in the middle of the pack among the at-large candidates, having raised $7,456.

The boundary analysis

In January 2019, the 17-year-old student member of the school board proposed hiring a firm to analyze school boundaries throughout the county. It was meant to look for ways to maximize the number of students able to walk to school, ease the strain of widespread crowding problems and ensure student body diversity.

In a 7-1 vote, the board approved the study, which sparked countywide tension and debates.

School boundaries have always been a hot topic. Each time a study is conducted or a change is proposed, there is pushback from the community it affects.

Often, people want their children to remain in the schools where they’re enrolled and are wary of being redistricted to schools farther from their homes. Sometimes, people voice concern about their property values plummeting and their school’s quality decreasing if the demographics of the school changes.

Usually, those debates are confined to a handful of communities at a time. Now, with a systemwide review, neighborhoods across Montgomery County’s 507 square miles are engaged, creating a “perfect storm” to spawn a tense election with heightened scrutiny, some residents have said.

Austin formed his Local Schools Facebook page in November.

Some posters in the group wrote that they were angered by what they felt was a lack of transparency from the school district about the analysis. Some said they were skeptical that the analysis would result in school assignment changes that would “break up neighborhood schools.”

Critics said changes would impact schools’ performance, travel times to school, students’ mental health and more. Some have threatened lawsuits, while others have compiled research about past redistricting decisions that they feel verifies their concerns about the countywide review.

Some frustration is the result of unclear and inconsistent communication from the school district.

In its request for proposals (RFP) — obtained by Bethesda Beat through a Maryland Public Information Act request — MCPS indicated that bidders would be asked to suggest boundary changes. In later community messages, though, MCPS was adamant that consultants would not make boundary change suggestions, a change they said occurred after the bidding process.

The inconsistency remains a point of contention.

Some residents who support the boundary analysis felt Austin’s group was spreading “misinformation” and joined the group to push back. Others posted on their own pages, accusing some posts in the Facebook group of being racist and classist.

Austin, with the backing of the Facebook group, filed as a candidate for the school board in January. Steve Solomon, a candidate for the open District 4 seat, also has the support of the Facebook group, and Guan has supporters there, as well.

Tension builds

Austin said he has been called a “fearmonger” and racist. His campaign has been criticized through allegations of illegally placed signs, not immediately disclosing where he works, his stance on boundary issues and his efforts to help raise money for a lawsuit challenging recent upcounty redistricting decisions.

“The overarching theme is the unconventional way my campaign started,” Austin said in an interview. “It caught people by surprise that are used to the way things are typically done. I focus on data and facts. If those cause fear, I don’t know what to do about that.”

One Montgomery, a community advocacy group revived to support the boundary study, has frequently criticized Austin online.

The group — many members support Harris, Dasgupta and Dalbin Osorio in the at-large race — often posts on its Facebook page, urging people not to vote for Austin. Supporters of the group frequently post screenshots of Austin’s social media posts, denouncing him.

Most often, Austin is criticized for comments made by others in the Neighborhood Schools Facebook page and for receiving support from Republicans and conservatives.

“The point people are trying to say is, ‘Look who is associating with this person. Look who he’s attracting,’” said Jill Ortman-Fouse, a former school board member who is affiliated with One Montgomery and is a frequent target of Austin and his supporters. “I think it just sends a bigger message about what the character of this movement is. That’s what concerns us and should concern other people.”

When Ortman-Fouse’s term on the school board ended in 2018, she did not run for re-election. Eight candidates filed for her seat, which was won by Karla Silvestre.

Some of the members of One Montgomery recently penned an op-ed in Maryland Matters that said Austin “has led a campaign of lies and misinformation.”

Austin responded with an op-ed of his own that rejected the claims. He now calls One Montgomery “the anonymous Stephen Austin smear group,” condemning its repeated posts about his campaign.

‘The board will be fine going forward’

Austin uses the Neighborhood Schools Facebook page to promote his candidacy, and posts frequently about other candidates. He frequently responds to others’ criticisms and posts in the group about his challengers.

In response, “libelous” posts have been made about him, Austin said, and a state lawmaker sent inappropriate messages to his wife. Austin declined to disclose who the lawmaker was or what the messages said.

Asked if he expected the school board race to be so contentious, Austin said: “Unfortunately, yes.”

“When I announced I was running … people experienced in local politics warned me,” Austin said. “I took pause because they said things like, ‘They will go after your family and kids.’ That was shocking to hear.”

Dixon, a current at-large school board member who decided to not run for re-election, said she has been following the race closely and is disappointed in the tenor of some arguments and debates. But, regardless of who is elected, Dixon said, she is confident board members will put any differences aside.

“I think obviously board members have disagreements with each other but we find ways to continue to work with each other,” Dixon said, “so I think the board will be fine going forward.”

June 2 deadline for votes

Most eligible voters in Montgomery County have received their ballots for the primary election. Ballots must be postmarked by June 2 to be counted. The top two vote-getters in the at-large race will move on to the general election in November.

At-large candidates are: Austin, Dasgupta, Harris, Mitra Ahadpour, Anil Chaudhry, Paul Geller, Jay Guan, Collins Odongo, Cameron Rhode, Pavel Sukhobok, Lumpoange Thomas, Dalbin Osorio and Darwin Romero.

District 4 candidates are: incumbent Shebra Evans and Steve Solomon. Ehren Park Reynolds originally filed as a candidate for this race, but has dropped out, although his name is still on the ballot.

District 2 candidates are: incumbent Rebecca Smondrowski and Michael Fryar. There is no primary election in this race, and both candidates will advance to the general election.

Information about all of the candidates and their positions on key topics is in Bethesda Beat’s Voters Guide.

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

Back to Bethesda Beat >>

Leading Professionals »

Newsletters

    Get top stories in your inbox
    Exclusive deals from area businesses
    Including a sneak peek of the next issue
    The latest, local job openings straight to your inbox

Dining Guide