Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Judge voids Pasco County school district’s 2017 west-side rezoning

A Pasco County circuit court judge on Wednesday invalidated the School Board's year-old decision that moved hundreds of children from Mitchell High to River Ridge High this past fall, as a way to ease crowding in west-side schools.

Judge Kimberly Sharpe Byrd found that some members of the advisory committee that made recommendations to superintendent Kurt Browning had conducted some business in private, contrary to the state's Sunshine Law. And in making a final decision, Byrd added, the School Board did not "cure" the violation.

District lawyers "failed to present sufficient evidence that all discussions and options were brought into the sunshine by the School Board," she wrote.

[Related coverage: Sides head back to court once more in Pasco County schools rezoning case]

The ruling throws into immediate question the fate of students who changed schools in the fall as a result of the rezoning. If the zone revisions are nullified, those children would no longer be attending their assigned schools, and could face having to return to their previous campuses mid-year.

Browning could stave off that situation, though, by invoking board policy on student assignment within the district. It says the superintendent may assign or reassign students on a case-by-case basis if such a move is "in the best educational interest of the child, or to prevent disruption of the educational environment."

Dennis Alfonso, the School Board's lawyer, said he would have to assess the options available to the district and present them to the board and administration. He expected to ask for a closed-door session at the board's meeting on Tuesday.

Lead plaintiff Jim Stanley said the group of parents who challenged the board action would like to see the sides come together to find a longer-term solution to the district's clear concerns over school crowding in west-side schools, as more and more new housing subdivisions rise.

"We need to find constructive ways to move forward," Stanley said, noting he regularly sent recommendations to district officials but felt as if the ideas were being ignored.

He acknowledged the district finds itself in a sticky situation, potentially having to undo its action in the middle of the year. But he also suggested the district could have avoided the scenario by acting properly in all facets of the rezoning process.

"I think this was the ruling that should be given," Stanley said. "We feel like it's a complete vindication of our position. … The people of Longleaf and Ellington are elated."

Their concerns in this case centered on the fact that certain members of the district's advisory committee discussed details of the rezoning in emails and social media chats that were not part of the public debate. They also observed that even within the committee's public sessions, many deliberations were conducted out of earshot, so the community could not determine what was happening.

Byrd found evidence for such actions, and deemed them unacceptable, dismissing the district's explanations.

"It should be noted that this court does not find ill intent on the part of anyone involved in this action," she wrote. "However, the Sunshine Law must be strictly applied to protect the public interest of openness in government."

The School Board could have fixed the problems by having a full and open debate about the rezoning, Byrd observed. However, the board did not demonstrate having done so.

"The only thing these minutes reveal is that the School Board only considered the recommendation of the superintendent instead of the various options being considered by the Boundary Committee," she wrote.

The fact that Browning made minor modifications to the committee's recommendation did not make a significant difference, she added.

In the end, Byrd found the district violation was significant enough to void its action.

Stanley said he viewed the process as unjust and unlawful from the outset, and decided to fight it "to represent the best interest of my community." He recognized that the issue is not closed, though.

The sides head back to court in a couple of weeks to argue an appeal of an administrative law judge ruling that the district acted within law in setting its rezoning rule.

[Related coverage: Administrative judge sides with Pasco County school district in west-side rezoning challenge]

The district also could decide to challenge Byrd's ruling.

A similar future fight over attendance boundary revisions is unlikely, as the district has revamped its process, eliminating the advisory committee entirely. Its next rezoning, also involving west-side high schools, is scheduled for Tuesday evening.

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