The issue flared multiple times before the coronavirus pandemic largely switched public focus to more basic questions of when schools would reopen again. Classrooms were shuttered for in-person instruction for more than a year.
Montgomery County school officials have long described the controversial analysis as a broad look — not a binding plan — at boundaries districtwide for the first time in a generation or more, as a way to inform future decision-making.
As the 178-page report was released Thursday, school district officials emphasized that no boundary changes are in the works as a result and said the school board will explore potential next steps during the 2021-2022 school year.
“It showed it was possible to improve school utilization and diversity at the same time,” said school board President Brenda Wolff, who added that she did not want parents to think they should have immediate concerns about changes.
Wolff said the data and findings will be helpful as the school board considers boundary issues down the road. “It will be very useful,” she said.
When the analysis began in 2019, enrollment in Montgomery schools had surged by more than 20,000 students in a decade, to more than 165,000 — which made it the nation’s 14th largest school system at the time.
But some of the system’s more than 200 schools were crowded, and others had empty seats. And while it is diverse by race, ethnicity and income, it was far less so from school to school. In a county that stretches almost 500 square miles, some schools are nestled in poorer neighborhoods and others in swaths of affluence.
Thursday’s report said Montgomery’s system of attendance “clusters” — which link elementary and middle schools to certain high schools — are “an impediment” to addressing capacity issues, especially for schools that are most overcrowded.
Currently 6 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools and 4 percent of high schools are considered highly crowded or underused, the report found. But removing cluster boundaries — which would distribute some students to other campuses — could bring the percentages to zero, according to the analysis.
Some of the five school boundary models explored in the analysis could eliminate the need for capital spending in middle and high schools, the report said.
None of the models would negatively affect diversity, according to the report, though two of the five would mean “minimal change.”
The models also started with the assumption that areas immediately around schools — and within its walk zone — should be “frozen,” not considered for potential reassignment.
The model that could improve both school use and student diversity would have a “modest” effect on distances to school — increasing them by one-eighth of a mile for elementary schools, a tenth of a mile for middle schools and a quarter mile for high schools.
“Significant improvements to utilization and diversity metrics are possible while only slightly increasing average distances to school,” the report said.
Cynthia Simonson, president of the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said parents began buzzing about the report almost immediately, with some asking her to explain what it means.
Simonson had only begun to review the lengthy document, but found the findings familiar. At first glance, she said, “there is nothing in the analysis that we have not been talking about as a county for years.”
Stephen Austin, an opponent of the boundary study who founded a popular Facebook page on the issue, said the analysis did not respond to his group’s concerns about keeping students closer to their schools. Only one model that is less viable reduces daily commutes, he said.
“If the Board of Education wants to do anything with this report to make changes, you are going to have a lot of parents with objections,” he said.
The report did not include any mass busing plan, as some had feared. But historically when districts have moved school boundaries by even a few blocks, there has been vocal opposition.
The report said it had compared Montgomery County with six other school systems, including those in Fairfax County, Va., and Wake County, N.C. More than 2,200 people took part in public meetings, interviews or small-group sessions early on, with more participating in the second phase.
“The alarm that people had — that we were going to bus kids from Bethesda to Burtonsville — is not a finding or recommendation in this report,” said school board member Patricia O’Neill.
Supporters of the boundary analysis said it could lead to changes that ease concentrations of poverty in some schools and relieve crowding, and that all students benefit from integration. Many skeptics said they appreciate diversity but oppose busing and want to preserve neighborhood ties and student friendships that are already formed.
Some differences in Montgomery’s schools are especially stark. For example, 94 percent of students at a Silver Spring elementary school received free and reduced price meals, compared with just 1 percent at a Bethesda elementary school.
The report found that more than half of Montgomery’s schools are over capacity, with more students than space. Enrollment is increasingly diverse, with larger percentages of Hispanic, Black and Asian students over the past 20 years.
About 45 percent of students do not attend the school closest to them, a number that does not include students who attend special magnet or choice programs.
The research, done by WXY Architecture + Urban Design, was guided by four factors: demographics, school facilities, neighborhood considerations and the stability of student assignments. Many who provided feedback emphasized the importance of proximity to schools, the report said. Views conflicted about how diversity should fit into boundary examinations.
The school board requested the analysis in 2019 following an effort led by the board’s student member, who wrote a resolution highlighting the academic and social-emotional benefits in schools with more racial and socioeconomic diversity and noted the importance of maximizing school facilities.