Opinion: Fomenting Fear and Division in Montgomery County

A campaign sign for Montgomery County Board of Education candidate Stephen Austin, placed illegally on a median near Travilah Elementary School in North Potomac. Photo courtesy of Dan Reed

As essential workers and grocery shoppers move cautiously around Montgomery County, we are reminded by newly placed campaign signs that Maryland’s June 2 primary election is only weeks away.

Most prevalent are the signs dotting public rights of way for Board of Education At-Large candidate Stephen Austin.

Anyone running for office in Montgomery County, even relative newcomers like Mr. Austin, should know that such postings are illegal.

But there may be a deeper significance to Mr. Austin’s flouting of Montgomery County rules. He may be signaling his contempt for the political norms that have allowed Montgomery County to thrive as one of the most diverse counties in America.

Using language that has been invoked since the 1950s to maintain segregation, Austin has led a campaign of lies and misinformation. In an attempt to block a much-needed study of Montgomery County’s school boundaries, he and his supporters have intimidated school officials, shut down a community meeting, and mocked and bullied high school students who object to the current boundaries as enforcers of racial and economic segregation.

The question for county residents is whether they will see his tactics for what they are and reject his attempts to sow fear and division.

Mr. Austin burst onto the Montgomery County scene last year as the face of the fear-mongering that followed the school board’s decision to develop a comprehensive picture of which schools are overcrowded, which underused, and which are economically or ethnically isolated.

The Board of Education’s decision to hire a consulting firm to study this important issue followed 40 years of drift. By not responding to new housing and school enrollment patterns with a comprehensive plan, the Montgomery County Public School system (MCPS) has more than 11,000 students sitting in overcrowded schools while nearly 10,000 seats sit empty in underused schools.

Schools with portable classrooms sit next to schools with empty classrooms, which represents a tremendous waste of public resources.

At the same time, racial and economic segregation has grown in recent years. Many schools in the eastern part of Montgomery County enroll mostly African American and Latino students while many toward the west of the county enroll primarily white and Asian students, a legacy of the many decades of Jim Crow laws that once governed Maryland, as well as the redlining and real estate discrimination that followed.

After MCPS high school students called the BOE’s attention to the terrible inequities present in MCPS, the BOE sensibly decided to gather as much data and information as possible to inform how it sets school boundaries in the future, and it hired an outside consultant to do a thorough analysis.

That one sensible decision launched Mr. Austin and his conservative allies into leading a campaign of misinformation, personal attacks, and fearmongering. The entire attack is based on a statement in the board’s September 2018 Educational Facilities Planning Policy.

That policy simply stated that in developing proposed options on potential boundary adjustments and new school placement, the superintendent should continue MCPS’s long-standing policy of considering geography, stability of school assignments, facility utilization, and student demographics. Mr. Austin and his allies seized upon the addition of language providing that MCPS “should especially strive to create a diverse student body in each of the affected schools.”

From this, Mr. Austin and his allies assert that the board is laying the groundwork for the destruction of neighborhood schools in favor of long-distance cross-county busing. They ignore the fact that the policy statement specifically provided that options should “take into account the geographic proximity of communities to schools, as well as articulation, traffic, and transportation patterns and topography” in addition to the “stability of school assignments over time.”

Indeed, last December, BOE President Shebra Evans and Superintendent Jack Smith issued a statement reaffirming the reasons for the boundary and utilization study and specifically countering “rumors that the districtwide boundary analysis will result in a ‘busing plan’ that will reassign students from one end of the county to the other to address issues of overcrowding and diverse learning environments.”

They explained, once again, that “schools and school clusters adjacent to one another across the county can have significantly different levels of utilization and student diversity . . . [and that] MCPS has and will continue to maximize walkers, in no small part, because it is economically efficient,” noting the obvious fact that “there always will be a need for some students to ride buses to school.”

In other words, while there will always be a need for buses in a sprawling 500-square-mile county, costs and traffic mean that there is absolutely no possibility of the study resulting in cross-county busing.

As Board of Education member Patricia O’Neill told The Washington Post in early March, “The fear is that we are going to willy-nilly bus kids from Bethesda to Silver Spring or from Potomac to Damascus. That’s not what we intend. We intend to maximize walkers and look at adjacencies.”

The Post reported that if shifts are being considered as a way to better use school buildings, O’Neill said, then officials would also look at socioeconomic balancing, as in the past.

Nevertheless, Mr. Austin sought to spread fear by repeatedly mischaracterizing the plans of MCPS. Just a couple of weeks after the MCPS statement, he once again warned in social media posts of a “large scale social engineering bus experiment” and a “busing scheme.” He stated that private schools had been advertising “specifically mentioning redistricting,” asserting that if the BOE implements “a large-scale bus experiment, people will leave the system.” He bizarrely implied that the “questionable social engineering experiment” would lead to brain cancer.

And his campaign is not limited to misrepresentations of public statements from MCPS. Some of the most recent targets of his and his Facebook group’s wrath have been the student members of the Board of Education and other students who are conscientious members of our community who have raised issues of disparity of educational opportunity. One of their supposed sins is that they are associated with U.S. Rep. Jamie Raskin.

These are precisely the sorts of attacks that the 2016 Trump campaign launched, and that the Trump administration continues to peddle, in an attempt to delegitimize public institutions which, while never perfect, have served us well. They also echo the kinds of language used in the 1950s and 1960s by those supporting segregated schools.

In Montgomery County, where Hillary Clinton received 75% of the vote in 2016, a charge that a new group of political activists are right-wing Trumpian-style tactical practitioners is a serious one, not lightly to be made. But the evidence for it is mounting.

The campaign of misrepresentations was conducted on a private Facebook page, initially called Montgomery County MD School Redistricting Opposition Group, and later changed to Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools.

Right-wing connections

Mr. Austin also started a nonprofit group, Montgomery County MD Neighbors for Local Schools (aka MoCo Neighbors for Local Schools), which is soliciting donations. Documents filed with the State of Maryland show that one of Mr. Austin’s two fellow board members in MoCO Neighbors is Zhenya Li of North Potomac. Ms. Li, an outspoken supporter of Donald Trump, is also chairperson of the Coalition for a Better Montgomery PAC and is its largest contributor.  Mr. Austin is the only candidate endorsed by the PAC, which has donated $3,000 to his campaign.

MoCo Neighbors has touted two lawsuits accusing the BOE of violating its own rules. What leaps out is that the attorney bringing the suits is John Garza.

Mr. Garza, a personal injury attorney, is best known in Montgomery County as president and local counsel of Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum. This was an organization formed to oppose a health curriculum adopted by MCPS in 2004 to inform middle and high school students that being gay is not an illness and that “reparative” or “conversion” therapies are dangerous and ineffective.

Mr. Garza, working with notorious groups like PFOX (Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays), the Family Research Council, and the Family Leader Network, brought numerous bogus complaints against MCPS. These legal attacks were ultimately unsuccessful, but not before costing taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

In other words, Mr. Austin, through his internet vehicle MoCo Neighbors, is promoting lawsuits brought by an attorney with a track record of pressing right-wing views that have been repeatedly rejected in our community. Thus, it is not at all surprising that that Mr. Austin, unlike six other candidates for the at-large BOE seat, ignored the candidate questionnaire presented by the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG (formerly, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays). Since it is very likely that there will be no open, live candidate forums before the June 2 primary, Mr. Austin’s hopes may hinge on the absence of forums where he could be confronted on what agenda he would pursue as a board member.

After many in the county objected to the inflammatory rhetoric in Mr. Austin’s private Facebook group – which includes some truly repugnant attacks on high school students – Mr. Austin established a more benign-sounding campaign website that mostly talks about supporting neighborhood schools. Indeed, his illegally-posted campaign signs simply say, “Stephen Austin for Board of Education/Neighborhood Schools.”

This sentence on the first page of his website may be revealing, however: “Ask any parent if they want their kids at a school that is FARTHER away, and you will hear a resounding ‘NO’. Yet that’s exactly the path the BOE has been heading down due to outsized influence from special interests and radical activists.”

He apparently prefers to call names rather than address why we have situations where students currently are being bused past school buildings with space in order to attend overcrowded schools farther from their homes.

Mr. Austin and his allies appear to be seeking to whip up fear and anxiety through unfounded attacks on those who simply want to make school boundary and school site selections more reasonable. Preying on people’s fears by falsely suggesting that his opponents are against neighborhood schools in favor of cross-county busing, rather than discussing the actual facts, is a sad tactic that some groups use to try to fool people.

Montgomery County deserves to know who is behind Mr. Austin’s campaign and why they support him. His language and rhetoric put him squarely in the tradition of extremist right-wing activists, a tradition Montgomery County has firmly rejected in the past.

We need to know if he is serving those extremists’ ideological interests or the interests of the county’s children.

— DAVID S. FISHBACK AND KARIN CHENOWETH

The writers are members of One Montgomery, a group formed to support excellent and equitable education in Montgomery County.