School Boundaries: Focusing on Process

Editor’s Note: The following is the sixth 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.

While boundary change is likely to remain emotive however it is pursued, focusing on the process over the outcome could address the most trenchant opposition—a) periodic review and adjustment of boundaries, and b) an independent and binding review commission in charge of the process.

First, the reason school boundaries have become a problem is not because they exist, but because they are fixed. The skeleton of the current boundary lines goes back to before the 1970s, before the decade of mass school closure, and the move to middle and high schools.

The skeleton is quite possibly more than 50 years old, from a time when the county’s population was around 300,000. During the period, the population fell and grew dramatically, but the lines remained unchanged except for when a school was closed or opened.

Entrusted with school boundary management, the school board has sought to address two decades worth of population growth by trying to develop mechanisms that accurately predict student enrollment. The county’s Planning Department provides the initial student generation rates from different types of dwellings. These numbers then feed into the calculations for new buildings in the capital budget.

The problem, as parents from overcrowded schools point out, is that the school system has repeatedly failed to accurately predict where schools might become overcrowded. So, what gives?

What the county Planning Department accepts privately, but does not publicly proclaim, is that enrollment predictions require some fortune telling. While the Planning Department issues permits for new developments, and can count student yields from new homes, the turnover of older homes, which is an even bigger source of student generation, depends on performance of the real-estate market neighborhood by neighborhood. In other words, this is a big guessing game, and expecting accuracy in predictions is naïve at best.

What the school board needs, instead, is the ability to reassign students after the market has played its part. This is what boundary change does. It looks at which neighborhoods have too many kids and which have fewer, and redraws school boundary lines to match capacity to enrollment. But since the market moves, the school board could very well need to redraw boundaries iteratively.

The ability to conduct this periodic review and adjustment is more important than the substance of the next boundary change itself. Once we accept that the real-estate market introduces a degree of uncertainty into the process, we can very well accept that not all boundary change will be perfect—and if there is a possibility for a do-over, it does not need to be perfect. If one iteration of changes fails to achieve its goals, there is the possibility of going back to change it.

Put another way, an iterative review and adjustment process would allow incremental boundary change. We don’t have to get all the changes in within the one shot we have at this. Rather than the fear of big changes redistricting triggers, it would now be possible to take smaller steps over a longer time to achieve the same goals. With certain safeguards in place, periodic review could produce stability in school assignment, which is one of four pillars used by the school board to determine boundary change.

One possibility, for example, would be to put the periodic review on a six-year cycle, which would start in Year 1 with investigation and end in the new boundaries in Year 6, when a new review cycle would begin. The six-year cycle would mean that a kindergartener would only change schools when she would have to anyway—to go to middle school.

The iterative review process might be a commitment to not bus students beyond an adjacent cluster. The law could provide to sweep the county section by section, rather than change all boundaries across the county. But no matter what these conditions are, the iteration of the review stabilizes the process, whereas big one-time changes produce fear and disagreement.

Lastly, an independent and binding boundary review commission could help insulate the process from the electoral politics that surrounds the school board.

The county school board elections are hotly contested and elected board members are sensitive to resident preferences. The most effective way of getting the board to act on something is to mobilize a few hundred people and attend school board meetings en masse. This is both a strength of the democratic process and its vulnerability. Delegating this task to an independent commission allows this work to proceed free of political winds.

Tomorrow: Subdivision Staging Policy

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

Photo by Mike Diegel

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