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Parents Wary of Policy Change

Is change designed to insulate school board from parent input and legal challenges?

In a move that critics say is detrimental to the democratic process in the Montgomery County Public Schools system, the Board of Education voted March 8 to tentatively approve a revised facilities planning policy that eliminates detailed references to public participation.

The draft revision of MCPS Policy FAA, Long-Range Educational Facilities Planning, has been made available for public comment. The record remains open until May, after which the revision will go back to the board for a vote. The board uses letters rather than numbers to identify policies; the letters “FAA” have no particular meaning.

Many parents in Potomac have complained that the Board of Education did not seek adequate public involvement in the planning of the new school on Kendale Drive, which will replace Seven Locks Elementary, even under the current policy.

Policy FAA is part of a MCPS-published Policies and Regulations Handbook, with 12 sections coded A through L. Each policy has a three-letter code and each regulation has a three-code and the suffix RA. Policy FAA governs school site selection, school construction, school closings, and boundary changes, among other facilities planning issues.

The existing policy FAA is 21 pages long and contains 18 references to public hearings, 11 references to civic organizations, and 20 references to PTAs. The proposed revision is six pages in length and contains no references to hearings, civic groups or PTAs.

Policy FAA is “a huge policy that affects us every time we add a school, we lose a school, we change a boundary," said Winston Churchill High School Cluster coordinator Janis Sartucci. The proposed changes are a signal from the Board of Education that “they really don’t want to hear from the community anymore. They really want to get out of having these hearings and control the amount of comment that the community's allowed to have.”

Sartucci is not alone in her concern about the proposed changes. The Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations has called an emergency meeting to discuss the issue.

But Montgomery County school officials say that public alarm over the possible policy change is misplaced. The detailed references to public participation absent from the new Policy FAA have merely been shifted to a supporting document, regulation FAA-RA.

“The current policy contains excessive regulatory language and does not have a supporting implementing regulation,” Education Policy Committee chair Sharon Cox wrote in a memorandum to the other board members proposing the change. “The proposed policy will be supported by an implementing regulation that will detail the processes outlined in the current policy. These processes are substantively the same as those described in the current policy.”

The proposed Regulation FAA-RA does largely mirror the current Policy FAA in references to the public participation process. But if the bottom line is same for the new policy as for the old, “Then why change it?” asked Rosanne Hurwitz, an area vice president for MCCPTA.

The change is mostly being carried out for “housekeeping purposes” said Board Member Steve Abrams (District 3), in an interview. Abrams lobbied successfully for changes to the draft revision that he said make it clear to the public that the existing framework for public participation will remain intact.

“Number one, we wanted to make it clear that we weren’t changing any of the existing processes,” he said. “The only thing that was done was a streamlining of language, but no change in substance. … The process will be exactly way it’s been before.”

Abrams called the contention that regulations are more volatile and less democratically meaningful than policies because they are not voted on by the board “arguably legitimate” but he said “that’s a process question versus a substance question.”

“When you try to legislate public participation sometimes it becomes stale because the requirements says ‘you’re supposed to do that.’ I tend to be much more in favor of substantive public participation as opposed to procedural public participation.”

Is the proposed policy revision a mere administrative change or an attempt to keep the public at arms length? A bureaucratic house-cleaning or a bureaucratic smokescreen?

The Board of Education is governed by its own Policies and Regulations Handbook, an Operations Handbook, which sets out procedures, as well as state law. The terms "policy" and "regulation" tend to be defined only in terms of themselves and one another.

For example, regulation CHA-RA, Procedures for Developing and Publishing MCPS Regulations, defines policies as “principles [that] serve as the basis for development and implementation of educational programs and/or for management of the school system” and says that regulations include “the assignment of responsibility for implementation” and “procedures to be followed to achieve the intended results of the regulation.” The document cross-references Policy CHA, but no such policy is listed in the on-line version of the handbook.

That’s because CHA was rescinded, said Harriet Potosky, assistant to policy coordinator in the Department of Reporting and Regulatory Accountability. Potosky laid out the policy/regulation distinction.

“A policy is sort of the board’s vision for something, it’s very broad. A regulation is much more specific,” she said. “The existing policy of FAA was old and when it was written, it was written with a lot of regulatory language in it. Basically they just took the regulatory language out.”

A regulation, she said, “is not voted on, but it is sent to the board as an item of information. … It’s really the superintendent [who] signs off on the regulation.” As for the new Regulation FAA-RA, a draft is available but “once they see what happened to the policy, then they’ll go back and tweak the regulation.”

Regulation BFA-RA, Policysetting, says that “after adoption of a new or revised policy, the superintendent will follow up with regulations for implementation, if appropriate.”

“If regulations implement policies, how can this possibly be something that supplants a policy?” asked Lilo Mitz, a Churchill cluster coordinator. “It doesn’t really make sense.”

Ultimately, the concerned members of the community may take solace in an existing framework for input that extends beyond Policy FAA. Board of Education policies are superceded by state laws, including sunshine laws and restrictions on real property actions, and MCPS has a full-time ombudsman.

What is more, the rules governing policy implementation are not themselves part of Policy FAA.