School Boundaries: A New Coalition?

Editor’s Note: The following is the fifth in a series of seven guest posts from Sunil Dasgupta on the discussions surrounding the possibility of changing the boundaries of Montgomery County’s public schools.

So, are the current efforts to revisit boundary change evidence of an emerging new coalition? The clearest proponents of boundary change appear to be MCPS students themselves.

The 2019 Student Member of the School Board, Ananya Tadikonda, sponsored a Board of Education resolution that asked MCPS to order an analysis of the issue. Nate Tinbite, the 2020 SMOB, appears to be equally vested in pursuing equity in the system via boundary change.

The student group MoCo4change is perhaps the most vocal organized body to demand change. In a system with 162,000 students, there will be those that oppose boundary change, but these other students have not yet become organized.

As property prices in the county have soared so dramatically that middle-income families, unable to buy in western school clusters, are being pushed east and north, particularly to more inexpensive parts of Silver Spring where schools have been historically weaker. This new population is better educated, better organized, better networked, and they are demanding that MCPS do better in their local schools, including if necessary redistricting so that resources are more equitably distributed in the system.

The Growing East County group, for example, has put together some of best spatial analysis of school underenrollment and overcrowding. Driven by housing turnover and new development, Twinbrook Elementary School, which used to do poorly, has improved. In Gaithersburg, the city has stepped in with grants and resources for its local schools, filling gaps left by MCPS.

As long as home prices continue to rise in the county, previously weaker school clusters will continue to gentrify. Incoming families will add their voices to the demand for increased resources, which in turn will bring further pressure to change boundaries.

The county’s NAACP Parents Council and the Latino community organizing group Identity Inc. have recently come together to form a “Black and Brown Coalition” to demand reforms that will improve performance of minority students. As this coalition demands reallocation of resources at a time when budgets are not expected to grow, rebalancing of capital and operating budgets could very well become the instrument of this redistribution they seek.

The issue is also getting a belated push from YIMBY (Yes, in My Backyard) groups, who have generally accepted the need for boundary change in the past but soft-pedaled the issue in favor of their larger goals of affordable housing, transit, and urbanism. Since most YIMBY proponents tend to be younger and many are child free, it is understandable that school policy was not high in their horizons.

But with large parts of mid- and down-county slated to go into building moratorium in July 2019, urbanists groups began increasingly calling for boundary change in the spring 2019. The County Council passed moratorium exemptions to allow ongoing development projects to continue, which together with the promise to increase school construction money by the Democratic leadership in the Maryland statehouse, could very well allow the county to paper over the need for boundary change one more time. However, many YIMBY folks are arguing that housing and education policy are inseparable.

Greater Greater Washington, an urbanist group, has joined the renewed call for boundary change. Dan Reed, a longtime urbanism activist in the county, wrote a blog on the group’s website calling the current situation inequitable in April 2019. MoCo YIMBY, which advocated strongly for the new accessory dwelling unit law, has released a proposal with two very interesting ideas—periodic boundary change and an independent boundary review body to provide political cover.

Among local politicians, former school board member Jill Ortman-Fouse has been the most outspoken advocate for change. In a Facebook post on July 8, Ortman-Fouse marshalled fiscal, moral, educational, and comparative arguments to mount the most comprehensive case for change. A few days later, she posted how her boldness on the subject had elicited some virulent responses from boundary change opponents.

As the county’s education unions enter the bargaining season in fall 2019, they are likely to speak to boundary change directly or indirectly. Members of the 13,000-strong powerhouse teachers union, Montgomery County Education Association, for example, have been demanding more planning time. If MCPS agrees to do this in earnest, it will have to hire more teachers so some of them can rotate through planning periods. MCEA is not allowed to bargain for smaller class size, so its push is very likely to be indirect.

With MCPS payouts for worker compensation on the rise, the Service Employees International Union, which represents non-teaching staff in MCPS, might want greater focus on safety, which could precipitate more training and further hiring. These increased expenses are unlikely to come from increased revenue. The county’s revenue situation remains tight and state funding is tied to specific mandates. One way to release this money would be rebalance the capital and operating budgets via boundary change.

Lastly, we should expect taxpayer groups to demand more efficient use of resources. Property taxes in the county are widely seen as being too high, and two-thirds of the residents do not have children in the public school system. If the alternative is a tax increase, taxpayers groups are likely to demand efficient use of resources, including rebalancing capital and operating budget spending.

Tomorrow: Focusing on Process

Sunil Dasgupta teaches political science at University of Maryland-Baltimore Countyand is an MCPS parent. He can be reached on Twitter @sunildasgupta4.

Photo by Mike Diegel

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