Updated: Residents claim violation of open meetings law in legal challenge of boundary changes

Updated: Residents claim violation of open meetings law in legal challenge of boundary changes

Lawsuit alleges school board members met ‘behind the scenes’ before final decision

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Community members protest changes to school boundary changes in November at MCPS central offices in Rockville.

File photo

This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. Jan. 20, 2020, to add background about an exchange between Stephen Austin and Judy Docca.

Community members have filed a legal challenge of recent boundary changes authorized by the Montgomery County Board of Education.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 10 in Montgomery County Circuit Court, alleges that the board violated the state’s Open Meetings Act by holding “behind the scenes” meetings both before making the changes and before passing an amended policy that dictates how boundaries are made or changed.

In November, the school board voted 7-1 to reassign approximately 2,000 students in the Clarksburg, Seneca Valley and Northwest high school clusters in upcounty to ease severe crowding at Clarksburg and Northwest. Rebecca Smondrowski was the only board member who voted against the plan.

Seneca Valley is being rebuilt and will make the school the largest in the state, at 440,000 square feet. The school will have capacity for 2,581 students, according to MCPS.

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 …”

It goes on to say board member Judy Docca told another parent, Stephen Austin, that she feels he opposed the boundary changes because he “does not want brown and black kids in his kid’s school,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit does not detail any more of the exchange between Austin and Docca. However, Austin and members of a group he founded said in a statement last month that they “reject racism and discrimination in any and all forms” and are concerned about “longer bus rides and the fracturing of local schools and communities.”

“Upon reason and belief, ‘behind the scenes’ meetings occurred to discuss how to establish the boundary changes under the guise of [free and reduced-priced meals] rates as a proxy or pretext to change the racial populations” of schools,” the lawsuit says.

Maryland law requires public bodies to hold their proceedings and deliberations in public, with limited exceptions.

MCPS spokespeople did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

In 2018, before those boundary changes were made, the school board revised a policy that says the board should consider student demographics, geography, school enrollment and stability of school assignments over time when making boundary changes.

The revisions added language that says the school board “should especially strive” to create a diverse student body at each school.

The lawsuit alleges more illegal meetings happened leading up to the passage of the amended policy.

Plaintiffs — Melissa Van Herksen, of Clarksburg, Louella Matarrazo, of Clarksburg and Olga Meely, of Boyds — ask for a jury trial and more than $7,000 in civil penalties. They also ask the court to void “any and all actions and decisions taken or made” by the school board, “including all decisions related to the boundary changes at any closed meeting and any subsequent open meeting.”

In a separate legal action, some community members have appealed to the state Board of Education to appeal the upcounty boundary changes.

In that appeal, residents challenge the legality of the boundary-making policy because it was not released for public comment after the phrasing elevating the importance of student body diversity was added.

They ask for the state board to overturn the boundary changes because the policy guiding the decision was passed illegally, according to the appeal.

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

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