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Pasco School Board approves new attendance zones for thousands of students

Parents spoke for nearly two hours Tuesday before the Pasco County School Board voted on new attendance boundaries.

Jeffrey S. Solochek

Parents spoke for nearly two hours Tuesday before the Pasco County School Board voted on new attendance boundaries.



Thousands of Pasco County students will be going to different schools next fall, after the School Board adopted new attendance boundaries aimed at easing crowding at some campuses and filling open seats at others.

The board approved three separate proposals, two of which generated much anger and debate over the past several months. The plans, recommended by superintendent Kurt Browning, were:

• Moving the Longleaf subdivision from crowded Mitchell High School and Seven Springs Middle School into River Ridge middle and high schools. The plan (called Option 4a2) for southwest county middle and high schools also reassigns students in the Deer Park area from the River Ridge schools into Gulf middle and high schools, effective in 2018-19. The district aims to fill open seats at Anclote High and Paul R. Smith Middle through a magnet Cambridge program, rather than rezoning students there. (See the board item)

• Shifting nearly 1,900 students from Sunlake High, Wesley Chapel High, Wiregrass Ranch High, Rushe Middle, Weightman Middle and John Long Middle into a new Cypress Creek Middle-High School on Old Pasco Road. The plan (called Option 13) would move students from portions of Meadow Pointe from Wiregrass Ranch, which has been on a 10-period day for two years, into Wesley Chapel High. Parents in that community wanted the board to relocate children in the Seven Oaks subdivision instead. (See the board item)

• Reassigning children from crowded Odessa and Oakstead elementary schools into the new Bexley Elementary, which opens in the fall. Some Oakstead children also were transferred to Lake Myrtle Elementary.

Board members said they knew they couldn't make everyone happy — as evidenced by the tears and anger that flowed after the votes — but they could not justify taking no action. Students in crowded schools deserve uncrowded conditions, they said, and available seats need to be filled.

Vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong called the decisions "heartbreaking" but also "necessary."

"No decision we make with rezoning is going to make everyone happy unless we say we won't rezone," Armstrong said. "Rezoning has to occur."

Only board member Steve Luikart opposed the two contentious middle-high school boundary changes. He argued that he would fight against any effort to move his own children from a school where they had immersed themselves in courses and culture, and he couldn't abide it for others' children.

"I can't support what we're doing," he said, to loud applause from the crowd.

His alternative proposals to phase in the new zones over time, so students attend only one middle and one high school, found no support among his colleagues, though. They said they had the same initial thought, but could not condone the cost of running half-empty schools or schools that could not offer the full complement of courses and extras because they had so few students.

When Luikart suggested that opening a new high school with students from rival campuses could be detrimental, other board members rebuked the notion. Member Colleen Beaudoin, also a veteran educator, said she had worked at new schools with wider disparities among children and the transition had been smooth.

"I would not ever vote to put a kid in a situation where I felt they will not be safe and prosperous," Beaudoin said, supporting the superintendent's recommendation.

Board members made their comments after hearing from parents for nearly two hours. The parents alternately thanked the board and superintendent for making a good plan, or criticized the officials for a flawed process that ended with an illogical, opaque conclusion that solved nothing.

"I am beside myself with what you are doing, disrupting my family's life," Longleaf parent Donna Babcock told the board, pleading to let her children remain at Mitchell High. "Please listen to us."

"Thank you so much and good luck," Seven Oaks parent Bethany Dixon told the board, supporting its plan for east county schools.

And so it went for much of the evening, the culmination of months of politicking, posturing and pressuring over school zones. Accusations and allegations flew throughout.

Board chairman Allen Altman suggested some parents who corresponded with him had a future in science fiction writing, after weaving so many stories about the rezoning process. Browning felt compelled to respond to "outrageous" allegations made against him, stating for the record his did not live in Seven Oaks — which was perceived as gaining his undue favor — nor did he have a girlfriend living there.

Near the end of the evening, Seven Oaks parent Kate Fletcher expressed her satisfaction that the contentious process had neared its final vote. No matter how the board voted, she observed, members will still face contempt and anger.

Yet the hard work really lies ahead, Fletcher suggested.

Thousands of students will be changing schools. And the school district will be fighting for more money, in the form of higher impact fees, to support needed new school construction. Fletcher called for unity after the disunity fades.

"The real challenges will just be beginning," Fletcher said. "Parents need to figure out how to help their kids adapt to it. Change is not the challenge. How we handle it is."

The newly approved zones take effect in 2017-18. School choice applications begin Feb. 1.

[Last modified: Wednesday, January 18, 2017 6:17am]


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