(Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

For months, the prospect of redrawing school boundaries has sent a jolt through the Maryland suburbs, with some in Montgomery County urging changes that would make schools more diverse and less crowded, and others expressing fears of long-distance busing or lower property values.

Much of the worry and debate was sparked by a January school board vote to take a broad look at the patchwork of school attendance zones in sprawling Montgomery County, with the nation’s 14th-largest school system.

This month, the process moves a major step forward, with the school board slated to choose an outside firm to conduct a districtwide boundary analysis — described as the first examination of its kind in at least 20 years.

The study is not intended to recommend specific boundary changes but rather to take a more expansive look at what exists — and what is possible — in a county that covers about 500 square miles, with 206 schools and swaths of wealth and poverty.

For more than a decade, student enrollment has surged. Some schools in the 163,000-student system are crowded, while others are underused. Some serve large numbers of students from struggling families, while others serve relatively few.

The rethinking has fueled conversations about race, economics, school quality, housing patterns and fairness. Some parents complain of “social engineering.” Others have weighed in on the benefits of diversity or the value of neighborhood schools and community bonds.

“Boundaries are the third rail,” said Jill Ortman-Fouse, an education activist who served on the school board. “People have come out of the woodwork on this because of fears about home values and busing across the district.”

School system officials in Montgomery point out no plans exist to bus students to faraway schools. They say no area of the county is being targeted for change and that the lengthy review is only getting started.

The school board expects to choose an outside consultant for the boundary analysis at its July 29 meeting. A request for proposals went out in June, following public meetings to gather comment on the scope of the study. More opportunities for public comment are expected.

“It’s premature to raise alarms,” said Patricia O’Neill, the school board vice president. “Many people are very anxious about this because they don’t know what it means. Some people are conflating boundaries and busing.”

O’Neill said a broad study is due after so many years, noting none has been done in her two decades on the board and perhaps for the decade before that.

“The county has significantly grown since we last looked comprehensively at school boundaries,” she said. “Some neighborhoods weren’t even built when boundaries were drawn.”

The school board’s vote in January to request the analysis followed an effort led by Ananya Tadikonda, then the board’s student member, who advocated for greater diversity in schools.

Her resolution spoke of academic and social-emotional benefits in schools with more racial and socioeconomic diversity and noted the importance of maximizing school facilities and looking at boundaries anew in light of changes infacilities policy.

Other student leaders have similarly spoken out at board meetings and community forums held in the spring.

Michael Solomon, a rising senior at Springbrook High School and co-founder of Montgomery County Students for Change, said he and others are not suggesting students be moved from one end of the county to another. But he said he considers many schools “de facto segregated” — with high numbers of black and Hispanic students, or relatively few. Or with many students from low-income families, or few.

“We’d like to do this study and use it to further diversify schools where it’s practical and possible,” Solomon said.

In the past decade, enrollment has jumped by nearly 21,000 students in Montgomery County. Over many years, the school system has grown increasingly diverse — it’s 32 percent Hispanic, 28 percent white, 21 percent black, 14 percent Asian and 5 percent multiracial.

The number of students from low-income families has shot up since 2005, as have English-language learners, according to school system data.

Some who favor a study of boundaries point to a 2014 county report that cited gaps in student performance between schools populated by students from more affluent families and those with a significant share from low-income families.

Greater demographic balance would ease challenges faced by schools with high concentrations of poverty, said Ortman-Fouse, citing benefits in after-school programming, teacher retention and parent involvement at more diverse schools.

“We should take advantage of opportunities to create more equity,” she said.

Laura Stewart, a vice president with the Montgomery County Council of PTAs, said greater diversity presents clear benefits: Students get more “real life” experience and learn from each other.

But Stewart also cited financial considerations: With many schools over capacity — and others with ample space — it makes budgetary sense to consider boundary adjustments rather than deciding to build new schools or additions, she said.

“It’s the fiscally responsible thing to do,” she said. “We don’t have infinite resources and we don’t have infinite money, and we can’t just keep building schools instead of using the resources we have.”

But many parents reacted with alarm to the possibility of changing the schools their children would attend.

“My family just bought a house in Kensington, BECAUSE of the schools my child would go to in the future,” parent Kimberly Olsen wrote in a letter to the school board. “Please do not jeopardize this decision!”

The consultant’s report, to be done by June 2020, is expected to examine facilities, demographics, the proximity of communities to schools, student assignment patterns, transportation and the location of special academic programs, while also comparing Montgomery to other systems.

Hector Ortiz, a father of two in Olney, said in the best case the boundary review would foster cohesion for communities such as his, where students are not all assigned to the same schools.

But Ortiz said he also worries his young children — not yet in school — could be affected by a shift, or possibly be assigned to different schools, since one will reach kindergarten age three years before the other. Frustrated families might consider private school, he said.

“That is a risk the school board needs to consider,” he said.

Board member Rebecca Smondrowski emphasizes to parents that the analysis under discussion is different from a classic boundary study.

“Everyone is passionate about their schools, and I understand it gets people nervous,” she said. “But it’s not a boundary study where changes are guaranteed.”

“We’re just trying to take a big-picture look,” she said.

Some parents say the school system has not given the public enough information about what is happening and why.

Geeta Oberoi Tholan, a mother of four from Potomac, put together a joint letter from 14 families calling for greater transparency and saying more communication is needed on an issue of such potential consequence.

She and others expressed concern their children and others across Montgomery would be separated from their schools, their school friends and their communities.

Their letter challenged assertions that county schools are racially segregated, saying that implies intentional discrimination.

“The fact that there are economic differences in demographics from one part of our county to another is not a sufficient reason to consider changing school boundaries,” the letter said. “There are less extreme options.”