Friday, May 8, 2020

battles over school boundaries divide candidates for montgomery county school board

Most years, school board races in Montgomery County can be pretty quiet. This spring, a study about school boundaries in this affluent yet diverse county have made the Board of Education election an explosive debate about race and class in public schools. It may be the most important race on the ballot.

Students outside Paint Branch High School in 2013. All photos by the author.

Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) comprise a very diverse school system: 72% of MCPS students are non-white, and the system has more students on free or reduced lunch than DC Public Schools has students. It is also growing rapidly. Although it is already the largest school system in Maryland and serves over 165,000 students, more than 2,000 additional students have enrolled each year for the last several years.

The Montgomery County Board of Education oversees MCPS and its nearly $3 billion budget. Eight of its board members are elected in something like a jungle primary: anyone from any political party can run, and the top two vote-getters in the June 2 primary will go to the general election in November. There are three seats up for grabs, one at-large seat and two district seats, which everyone votes for regardless of where they live. Meanwhile, middle and high school students nominate and elect a student as the ninth member, which they’ll vote for on May 20.

We’re talking about school boundaries

School board members in Montgomery County are considered part-time, and receive a very small salary to make decisions from the converted auditorium of what was the county’s black high school in the 1950s. But they have a lot of power. In 2018, student board member Ananya Tadikonda proposed that the school board look at school boundaries, which in some areas haven’t changed in 30 years. The school board hired a consultant, and their research  — which began last fall — affirmed things that many parents or students already knew or assumed:

  • Schools have become segregated by class and race, with most white, Asian, and higher-income students clustered on the western side of the county, and most black, Latinx, and lower-income students clustered on the east side and in the Upcounty. Montgomery County’s Office of Legislative Oversight has done multiple studies finding this is hurting student performance.
  • There are many overcrowded schools, with nearly 10,000 students attending classes in trailers, while schools that are underused have a total of about 10,000 empty seats.
  • Some 40% of students going to their assigned school (not counting students who are in magnet or special programs) don’t go to the school closest to their house.

The boundary analysis found that students on free and reduced lunch (FARMS) are clustered in East County and the Upcounty. Image from WXY Architecture + Urban Design.

Looking at school boundaries could address each of these issues, by reducing segregation, making better use of empty space, and even allowing students to attend schools closer to home. School officials have repeatedly said they’re years away from actually making any changes, and asked the consultants to not give any specific recommendations for boundary changes.

But parents on the county’s affluent west side, fearing that they would lose access to high-ranked schools that command very high home prices, began organizing to stop the boundary analysis. They were joined by a group of parents from a newly-built neighborhood in Clarksburg who are suing the Board of Education for a previous decision to send their kids to a different, and lower-ranked, high school.

People are big mad

In a nutshell, here is what happened next: in December, parents at a community meeting in Rockville heckled a presenter to the point of tears. The following month, convicted felon Paul Manafort’s spokesperson (who lives in Chevy Chase) accused the school board of lacking integrity. There were more meetings, more yelling, hundreds of angry letters, and another lawsuit.
PTA listservs (which are supposed to be nonpartisan) began urging their members to vote for certain candidates.  Homeowners’ associations in Potomac sent out mass emails claiming MCPS would implement “cross-county busing”, while a North Bethesda real estate agent held “boundary analysis workshops” to counsel homeowners about whether they should sell. Private schools ran Facebook ads targeting parents worried about redistricting.  As students from across the county organized to support school redistricting, the same parents who said they were doing this “for the kids” heckled and attacked them. That’s when the school board race exploded.

Okay, back to school board

There are two district seats and one at-large seat up for election this year. Incumbent school board member Rebecca Smondrowski (District 2, Gaithersburg) has just one opponent, so she’ll sit tight until November. Fellow incumbent Shebra Evans (District 4, Wheaton and Silver Spring) has two opponents, including former sports radio host Steve “Solly” Solomon of Wheaton.

A sign for Stephen Austin outside Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, which is in the process of getting a $24 million addition.
The at-large seat is the most competitive and high-profile race, as former principal Jeanette Dixon is stepping down after one term. There are 13 people running for her seat. Most of them are running against the school boundary analysis, but these are the two most prominent opponents:

Stephen Austin of Bethesda works in finance and started a Facebook group to organize opposition to the analysis. His slogans are “Neighborhood Schools” and “Great Local Schools For All.” While this might sound harmless, these slogans have a long history of racist ties, as they were used by some white parents to protest school integration in the 1960s. His campaign has other troubling connections: he received $3,000 from an organization founded by Zhenya Li, who fights local pro-immigrant laws, and he’s donated money to an anti-school redistricting lawsuit brought by a lawyer who spent over a decade fighting the inclusion of LGBTQ curriculum in Montgomery County schools. In recent weeks, his campaign has illegally placed hundreds of signs on public roads and at parks and schools.

Jay Guan of Clarksburg is an engineer and advocate for the Chinese-American community whose platform includes preparing students for changes in technology and better engagement for immigrant families. His slogan is “Community Schools,” which is a real program in Maryland where schools partner with social services organizations, but he’s also repeatedly spoken out against changing school boundaries, which still sounds a lot like “Neighborhood Schools”. He’s been endorsed by state delegate Lily Qi and former school board member Michael Durso.

There are three candidates running on what you could call “pro-equity” platforms, and support the school boundary analysis.

Sunil Dasgupta of Rockville is a political science professor at UMBC and former PTA president who emphasizes student mental health and reducing class sizes, and wrote a seven-part series looking at the politics of school boundaries. Dasgupta has endorsements from the teachers’ union, Progressive Maryland, and SEIU Local 500, county councilmembers Sidney Katz and Hans Riemer, and YIMBY MoCo.

Lynne Harris of Silver Spring is a teacher at Edison High School, a longtime PTA parent, and former president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs whose platform includes increasing access to advanced classes for students of color. Harris has support from County Executive Marc Elrich and councilmembers Evan Glass and Gabe Albornoz, Ananya Tadikonda, the former student school board member, and YIMBY MoCo.

Dalbin Osorio of Gaithersburg is a former teacher and wants to make the curriculum more reflective of students’ diverse backgrounds. His sole endorsement is from Run For Something, a group that endorses young progressive candidates. Guan and Austin have each raised the most money, followed by Dasgupta, but their donors come from different areas.

Recent MCPS grad and GGWash contributor Brian Kramer looked at several candidates’ finance reports and found that Guan’s and Austin’s donors are clustered in Bethesda and Potomac, home to the county’s highest-ranked and most racially segregated schools. Dasgupta’s are spread more evenly throughout the county, while Harris’s donors are primarily around Silver Spring.

You have a stake in this, whether or not you have kids

I don't have kids. But I did graduate from MCPS in 2005, and I went to diverse schools that exposed me to kids from all different backgrounds and walks of life. Those experiences made me who I am today, but I didn’t really follow school issues until 2013, when my brother entered high school and I realized that the experiences I had didn’t happen by accident. Diverse schools, and diverse communities, are something you have to maintain and nurture.

That year, a group of parents, teachers, students, and community members like myself started a group called One Montgomery. We hustled to raise awareness about the impacts of segregation on our schools, even as MCPS denied it was even happening. 

Today, people seem to get it, if only because the disparities have become so stark. In diverse neighborhoods, schools are falling apart due to deferred maintenance or losing teachers due to under-enrollment, even though their students have greater needs and fewer resources than ever. Meanwhile, we’re spending millions on massive additions for schools that virtually no black or poor students attend, while students do ignorant, racist stuff like this or this or this. Not only is this a colossal waste of our tax dollars, but it makes our community a worse place to live.

The primary election for the Montgomery County Board of Election will be June 2, 2020.

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