MCPS Boundary Study raises controversial opinions

Vismaya Paul and Rachel Wang

Based on a proposal by former Student Member of the Board (SMOB) Ananya Tadikonda last school year, the MCPS Board of Education awarded WXY Architecture and Urban Design, a New York-based firm, a $475,000 contract to conduct a year-long districtwide analysis of the county’s current school boundary lines. The firm will investigate impacts on school diversity, crowding and socioeconomic trends. The analysis is the first comprehensive study of school boundaries by MCPS within the last 20 years.

According to WTOP, the districtwide study is currently focused only on analyzing boundaries rather than recommending changes. However, as reported by the Bethesda Magazine, the decision to carry out his study has generated controversy among county residents, especially since many see it as the first step toward redistricting. 

The Board of Education held its first meeting on the initial phase of the project on Nov. 18, and a series of public hearings will be held from December to January to further discuss the study.

WXY Architecture will review MCPS and local data on demographics, socioeconomic trends, development and transportation trends and existing school boundaries, according to Bethesda Magazine. WXY then will analyze boundary change practices from other school districts across the U.S. as well similarly-sized school districts facing similar issues as MCPS.

The firm will also test how potential boundary changes will affect transportation, student demographics and proximity to schools. From the data collected, WXY will publicly present three potential boundary plan options next summer, along with strategies to project and manage over-enrollment, under-enrollment and segregation.  

The demographic factor of the WXY study in particular has become a point of contention amongst MCPS residents, students and parents. According to Bethesda Magazine, at a public meeting held in April, the study faced widespread opposition from parents who brought up issues with racial equity, detriment to current school communities and long transportation times.

MCPS also received around 1000 public comments about the study, many of which were published by Bethesda Magazine and reflect a similar negative response. “Any proposal to change school boundaries will have a detrimental effect in the community dynamics,” wrote a commenter, whose name was excluded by MCPS for privacy. “It will affect more than just schools, the housing market will plunge into chaos as a result and local businesses will suffer. [As a] long time Montgomery county resident (20 years with both kids attended public schools) I for one will move out of the county once this consultant work begins.”

However, student advocates like  schoolwide vice president and junior Nick Asante, who helped push for the countywide border analysis along with Tadikonda, believe that the studies will successfully reflect the long-standing issues of unequal educational opportunities. 

“When students living five miles away from each other receive educational opportunities of extremely varied quality, then you know there’s something wrong with the system. Parents being appalled and completely against a study whose sole purpose is to study our different school boundaries is a clear indicator that something is wrong,” Asante said.

Other student advocates see the boundary study as an opportunity to change the current school assignments that they believe to be segregated.

“It’s been understood for a long time that MCPS and its district lines is the product of racist housing policies from the 1950s to 1960s,” sophomore Uma Fox said. “And we see the ramifications of that policy today in the way our schools are zoned where schools are oftentimes not reflective of the diversity of this county and do not offer students an equal chance at opportunities.”

Similarly, SGA student leader sophomore Hana O’Looney said, “Study after study has shown the benefits of diversity in the classroom, and study after study has shown that the schools in wealthy communities are getting the most funding. There is absolutely no way to justify this.”

However, some students have voiced concerns regarding the potential transportation and residential hardships that come hand-in-hand with the redistricting. “You might be in one boundary and the school might not be too far, but then you redraw it and then it becomes really far away. I think that that is definitely a valid concern for a lot of people,” senior Annyah St. Louis said.

The adoption of the boundary plans may also lead to residential and house pricing issues. “Schools do impact how people [previously decided] to buy houses and that impacts the housing market because a lot of people rate schools and see how great it is,” St. Louis said. As a result, many people’s houses may lose economic value due to the redrawing of school boundaries. 

Alongside the WXY countywide analysis, MCPS has simultaneously conducted two smaller boundary studies: one involving the Seneca Valley, Northwest and Clarksburg High School clusters; another involving Forest Knolls, Montgomery Knolls and Pine Crest elementary schools. MCPS Superintendent Jack R. Smith released his recommendations for these studies in the FY 2021 Capital Budget Plan and the FY 2021-2026 Capital Improvements Program on Oct. 25. Besides Smith’s suggestions, several other boundary change options are also currently being evaluated. 

While designing these boundary studies, the Division of Capital Planning followed the Board Policy FAA, Educational Facilities Planning, and evaluated four factors similar to WXY’s: demographics, school utilization, geography and stability of school reassignment over time. 

“None of those factors are weighted. We look at all the factors, and we develop options that advance those factors,” MCPS Director of the Division of Capital Planning Adrienne Karamahis said. “Some of the options advance some of the factors better than others, and so we develop a wide variety of options that we believe advance all of the factors in different ways.”

While the Board of Education considers options for its boundary studies, public meetings and testimonies from citizens will continue to occur over the course of the next few months. “I’d love to see more students testify about the importance of diversity in their lives and the importance of improving the diversity of our schools,” Fox said.P