Tensions about a comprehensive review of Montgomery County schools’ boundaries came to a head Wednesday night at a public meeting at Julius West Middle School in Rockville.
At the second of six meetings designed to provide information about an external review of school boundaries and gather feedback, approximately 450 people packed the school’s cafeteria.
Most opposed the analysis, commissioned by MCPS to examine ways in which the district could better use its schools to alleviate overcrowding, diversify schools and maximize the number of students able to walk to class.
The meeting, intended to be a presentation from consultants conducting the study, quickly turned hostile.
Presenters from WXY Architecture + Urban Design were repeatedly interrupted as they answered questions, and people who spoke in favor of the study and diversifying schools were booed. One presenter cried.
“I would never want to come to a meeting like this again,” an eighth grader at Julius West said. “This is just people screaming and people screaming back.”
In a statement Thursday morning, MCPS spokesman Derek Turner said school district officials were “disappointed that some communities sought to derail an informational meeting.”
“We wanted our community to be engaged and provide informed feedback, but they won’t be informed unless they receive the full presentation,” Turner wrote. “This is a complex issue and we want to make sure the community understands the complexity.”
In January, the school board authorized a $475,000 review of school boundaries, which 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.
Representatives of WXY have repeatedly said they will not make recommendations for boundary changes when their final report is issued in May.
Still, many community members have organized in opposition to the analysis, mostly saying they fear “busing” and breaking up “community schools.” There are more than 5,000 people in a Facebook group titled “Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools Without Redistricting.”
Much of their fear stems from language in the WXY project proposal submitted to MCPS. In it are references to “recommending cluster boundary reassignments.”
An MCPS spokesman recently said the proposal was an initial idea for the project and not reflective of “what the Board has asked of them and the final scope.” He did not elaborate and representatives declined to disclose more details when asked by audience members on Wednesday.
“We were asked to do a particular job through a particular contract,” a WXY consultant said during the meeting. “WXY was hired to do the job, then we’ve continued to talk with them and negotiate with them about the actual scope of work.”
Three hours before the meeting, MCPS Superintendent Jack Smith and school board President Shebra Evans released a message to the community addressing “rumors” about the analysis.
“Contrary to misinformation that is circulating in our community, the final report WILL NOT include recommendations for boundary changes/student reassignment,” the message said. “MCPS did not request and will not accept any recommendations for boundary changes/student reassignment.”
There will be no “busing plan” that will reassign students from one end of the county to the other, according to the message.
Many residents at Wednesday’s meeting were not convinced.
One woman said she has lived in the county for 46 years and while the school district used to be “wonderful,” it is now “one of the most controlling, unreasonable school systems that is run by people who feel they can avoid the taxpayers.”
“We simply don’t trust you because of the past,” she said. “We don’t trust the board of education.”
After the meeting, many community members took to social media, surprised by the tension on display.
“In 13 years of going to meetings, this is one of the most hostile rooms I have ever been in,” Dan Reed, an urban planner from Silver Spring, wrote on Twitter.
A recent graduate of Northwood High School, Brian Kramer wrote that the environment became “toxic to be in and the meeting wasn’t productive in the slightest.”
Longtime school board member Pat O’Neill said in an interview Thursday that she thinks there is misinformation being spread about the analysis, which has created a divide in the community.
“I understand people are concerned and I understand the concerns, but there are a lot of rumors and misinformation,” O’Neill said. “When people are concerned about their children, the mama bear comes out in most parents. … There just seems like there’s no room in our society these days for people to hear varying viewpoints and people don’t want to listen to each other. They just want to vent.”
School board member Judy Docca said Thursday that she was surprised to hear about the meeting, but it’s common for people to be upset any time there is a boundary study.
“People are just so nervous about changing schools for their kids that they have to speak out,” Docca said. “This has happened all over the country. Any time you have something new, it’s really concerning to people.”
In a post on Facebook, former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse denounced the jeering and hostility on display Wednesday. She said the repeated interruptions was not conducive to productive conversations.
“The people who started that group must be over the moon with joy at how well their strategy has worked to turn a group of parents wanting more information about something they may have found confusing into a pitchfork-baring mob,” Ortman-Fouse wrote.
Former student board member Matt Post commented on Ortman Fouse’s post, saying the display was “the dying gasps of something older, something different.”
“This wasn’t Montgomery County,” Post wrote. “Not the Montgomery County I’ve met in hallways and eaten next to in cafeterias and learned beside in classrooms over my 20 years alive here.”
The consultants will provide an interim report in February, including the data they have gathered and information about “opportunities and constraints,” according to WXY’s project plan.
Then, additional community meetings will be held before a final report is presented to the public in May.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org