By Adam Pagnucco.
Negative campaigning has a long and brutal history in Montgomery County but this year’s school board election is emerging as one of the most contentious contests in decades. The arguments contain echoes of the titanic school board election battles of the early 1980s, in which a conservative faction led by Marian Greenblatt was eventually toppled. Then as now, race, school boundaries, accusations of busing and the shadow of national politics mixed in a bubbling witches’ brew that no cauldron could hold. There is nothing new here. Rather, skeletons emerge from the grave to refight battles that seem as eternal as they are ancient.
The immediate impetus of the current dispute is a change made to MCPS’s facility planning policy in September 2018. Prior to the change, four factors were weighted equally in picking sites for new schools and changing school boundaries: demographic characteristics of student population, geography, stability of school assignments over time and facility utilization. The new policy was revised to contain this sentence on demographics: “Options should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools in alignment with Board Policy ACD, Quality Integrated Education.” Jill Ortman-Fouse, who at that time was on the school board and helped lead the effort to change the policy, justified it by saying, “Diversity matters. Let’s weight that a little bit more.” MCPS followed up by hiring a contractor to study school boundaries and implementing a redistricting in Germantown and Clarksburg that spawned a lawsuit.
Now supporters and opponents of the new facilities policy and the boundary analysis are at war. The leader of the opposition is Stephen Austin, a newcomer to MoCo politics who set up a Facebook group last winter that now has almost 8,000 members. It’s unusual in the county for such a large group to form so quickly without external organization and funding, but schools are a hot issue here for folks with all kinds of perspectives. The other side is a group of MCPS activists favoring the boundary analysis, many of whom have been active on school issues for a long time. Their spiritual leader is Ortman-Fouse, who has made diversity her signature issue both during and after her tenure on the school board. Austin is one of 13 candidates running for an at-large school board seat in a field with varying views on school boundaries. Strong feelings run high on both sides.
My personal sympathies lie with those who favor diverse schools. My upstate New York elementary school was roughly 90% white. When I moved to MoCo, I deliberately chose to live near a diverse public elementary school so that my kid could benefit from being around others with different races, cultures and life experiences. My choice paid off in a BIG way. My kid has experienced both diversity and superb academic instruction at the same time. He is much better prepared for the modern world than I was at his age. So I won’t be voting for any candidate who opposes diversity.
But there is more going on here than just that one issue.
I read the posts in Austin’s Facebook group almost every day. There are statements on there with which I disagree. There is some nastiness directed at the other side (and the press). But there are also participants who express a mixture of curiosity, concern and skepticism. Some distrust what they see as a centralized school bureaucracy that does not communicate very well. (This is one sentiment they share with some on the other side!) There are plenty of folks there who are not white. There has also been discussion of issues other than the boundary analysis. It’s a more complicated place than Austin’s opponents might admit. However, some of the blame for that goes to the moderators who have kicked out people who disagree, causing the exiles to assume the worst since they can’t view the content themselves. Inflammatory tidbits sometimes leak anyway.
I’m not all that worried about the pugilists in the ring. In politics, anyone who throws a punch should be ready to take a punch. But I do wonder about the people in Austin’s group, as well as on other social media threads, who read all of this material and say nothing. What are they thinking? I bet more than a few believe there is no point in saying anything because if they do, and if they vary from the orthodoxy of either side, they will be subject to bitter, public personal attacks. How many folks who have something to contribute will never run for school board or get involved with school issues at all for fear of being hurled into the mud?
Here is a great irony. Austin’s supporters believe that the school board does not do enough to oversee or challenge MCPS management – a view shared by some on the left. It’s a common perception that some school board members get assimilated into the system after winning office (with the notable exception of the 2015 revolt against then-Superintendent Josh Starr). Bereft of a sizeable, independent staff of analysts reporting exclusively to them, the board risks being at the mercy of a management that can control information and set tight boundaries for policy decisions. One school board member who resisted that tendency was none other than Ortman-Fouse, who never backed down from management, regularly demanded (and released) data and engaged in actual constituent service – just like elected officials are supposed to do. Put aside their ideological disagreements and Ortman-Fouse could provide a model of independent-minded school board service that even Austin and his folks could appreciate were it not for their mutual loathing.
At this point, tribal politics has taken over this race. Each tribe fears what the other one will do if it wins. Non-tribe members are barely acknowledged even though at least 99% of the county has no idea what is going on in this election. The disengagement of so many voters and the sheer oddities of present times make this a hard race to divine.
In Part Two, I’ll assess the tactical environment in what might be MoCo’s strangest election ever.
And in Part Three, I’ll talk about a few issues that have been largely undiscussed so far but collectively will determine at least as much of MCPS’s future as any boundary analysis.