Administrative judge sides with Pasco County school district in west-side rezoning challenge
Parents' claims that the Pasco County School Board acted inappropriately in setting new attendance zones for west-side middle and high schools did not persuade an administrative law judge, who on Thursday denied the families' petition challenging the action.
Judge D.R. Alexander, who heard two days of testimony, agreed with the parents that the board is subject to state law on rule making when it comes to creating school zones. But he did not find that the district failed to adhere to those laws.
"The steps taken by the School Board during the rezoning process substantially comply with all procedural requirements," Alexander wrote. "Absent a showing of prejudice by Petitioners, the rule is not invalid."
He rejected the complaints that the district did not provide appropriate formal notice of its meetings, for instance, noting that the parents were well aware of the rezoning process from early on. West side residents began circulating information to fight rezoning in late August, and began speaking out in early September.
Several sent emails to the school district expressing their opinions.
"It is fair to conclude from the evidence that Petitioners and Intervenors had actual notice of the committee and parent meetings, as most attended or watched the committee meetings by live streaming, they provided comments at the parent meeting, or they voluntarily chose not to attend," Alexander wrote. "Thus, a failure to properly notice rule development was harmless error where Petitioners had actual notice of the process."
He also turned aside the families' contentions that the board's rule was vague and lacking in standards for reaching a conclusion. And he did not accept the argument that the outcome, which has the plaintiffs' children reassigned to different schools, was arbitrary.
"The School Board's proposed rule was the product of thoughtful consideration by the committee and Superintendent during an extensive rulemaking development process," Alexander wrote. "There is no credible evidence that the proposed rule is capricious or that it was taken without thought or reason or irrationally."
Jim Stanley, one of the plaintiffs, said he did not want to comment to avoid jeopardizing any future action. The group's lawyer, Robert Stines, was not immediately available for comment.
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he was pleased with the outcome, but noted that Alexander has yet to issue a ruling on the challenge to east-side rezoning and a circuit court case on the matter still remains.
"I don't think this case is quite over yet," Alfonso said.
The School Board decided to redraw attendance zones for 2017-18 as a way to ease crowding in some schools, primarily Mitchell High and Seven Springs Middle, and to fill seats at under-used campuses such as Anclote High and Paul R. Smith Middle.
In the months leading to the board vote, an advisory committee struggled through several meetings to come up with a recommendation that kept most residents happy. In the end, and by a narrow margin, it proposed a map that would rezone a handful of communities, primarily the Longleaf subdivision from which the challenge arose.
Board members heard comment from residents at several public sessions before holding two formal hearings on the proposals, which superintendent Kurt Browning modified slightly. The board is implementing the new zones to take effect in the fall.