MCPS Preparing for Legal Battle over Countywide Boundary Analysis

MCPS Preparing for Legal Battle over Countywide Boundary Analysis

After fireworks earlier in the week, Saturday meeting was calm

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After a tense and divided meeting earlier in the week, hundreds of people gathered on Saturday at White Oak Middle School for another meeting about the countywide boundary analysis.

Caitlynn Peetz

Montgomery County Public Schools leadership is gearing up for potential legal battles over an ongoing countywide review of school boundaries.

On Monday, the Board of Education will meet in closed session to discuss “potential litigation related to the examination and analysis of school boundary data,” according to a notice posted on the school district website.

The closed session is scheduled to run from approximately 10:15 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., according to the agenda.

No lawsuits had been filed as of Saturday afternoon, but MCPS officials said they believe some community members will seek an injunction from a judge, which would legally prevent the boundary analysis to continue.

“We have gotten emails from people saying they’re going to file a lawsuit or injunction, so the board will meet to discuss potential arguments people would make and how we respond to that,” Derek Turner, an MCPS spokesman said on Saturday morning.

Turner did not say from whom the school district had received the emails and did not elaborate further.

Maryland’s open meetings law allows closed sessions to discuss pending or potential litigation to “prevent disclosure of the board’s legal position or strategy.”

The closed-door meeting will happen less than a week after a community meeting that was marked by heckling and jeering by community members who oppose the study.

Presenters from WXY Architecture + Urban Design, the firm contracted by MCPS to conduct the analysis, were repeatedly interrupted as they answered questions, and people who spoke in favor of the study and diversifying schools were booed. One presenter cried.

Opponents fear boundary changes that would lead to lengthy bus rides for their children. They don’t trust the school board to ensure a thorough, unbiased analysis is done and have voiced confusion about the study’s objectives, they say.

In January, the school board authorized a $475,000 review of school boundaries that determine what schools students attend based on where they live. The study tasked consultants with providing a synopsis of MCPS schools’ capacity, their socioeconomic composition and community members’ thoughts about the project. Data will be compared to similarly sized school districts across the country.

The overarching goal, MCPS officials and consultants have repeatedly said, is to provide a “critical data resource” for board members to use when they examine individual schools’ boundaries in the future.

Less than 72 hours after the polarized meeting, community members gathered on Saturday morning at White Oak Middle School for the third in a series of six public meetings about the study.

This time, there was no heckling of WXY presenters. People on both sides of the debate intermingled and discussed their concerns and hopes. At one point, a man argued loudly with MCPS staff over the timing of a question-and-answer session. Within a minute, he returned to his seat.

Toward the end of the meeting, a few supporters of the analysis interrupted opponents while they were asking questions of the consultants, but the tension never escalated.

Of the roughly 250 people who attended Saturday’s meeting, about half live in the Silver Spring area and about 25% identify as black or Latino, according to surveys taken by WXY.

More than half of people who attended said in a survey they support the analysis, while 23% said they are “skeptical about this process.”

Montgomery County police officers were present at the meeting, along with MCPS security, which will be standard procedure for boundary analysis meetings moving forward, according to MCPS staff members.

At Saturday’s meeting, attendees were allowed to ask consultants questions, which wasn’t part of previous meetings.

During a Q&A session, consultants explained that their original project proposal, submitted to MCPS, said they would recommend boundary changes. However, guidance from the school district indicated boundary change recommendations were not wanted, so WXY altered its scope of work to focus more heavily on data gathering and analysis and nixed creating potential boundary changes.

“We quickly learned that’s not the path we want to go down,” said Adam Lubinsky, a WXY consultant. “When a (request for proposals) is issued and then there are discussions about the project, the scope changes. That is a frequent practice.”

Three more community meetings are scheduled in January before WXY presents a preliminary report to the school board in February. A final report is scheduled to be released in May.

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

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