Pasco School Board tentatively approves new school boundaries
LAND O'LAKES -- After lengthy public hearings Tuesday, the Pasco County School Board gave its tentative approval to three recommended attendance zone changes for 2017-18.
The one for east Pasco middle and high schools proved most contentious, with speakers from potentially affected communities clearly divided between two options - one to move children in the Seven Oaks subdivision, another to rezone students in the Meadow Pointe subdivision.
"The truth of the matter is, people in the same community can't agree on which is the best one," board chairman Allen Altman said after listening to the presentations.
A proposal for southwest Pasco middle and high schools generated significant concern among residents, many of whom urged the board to adopt a map that was not up for consideration. Families in the one large subdivision slated to move schools took up much of the time, begging board members to leave them alone.
"High school is supposed to be a memorable part of your life, and now my life is going to be changed," Mitchell High sophomore Lauryn Cusma said. "You are holding spots at Mitchell for people who aren't even part of the family yet. Think of the impact it will have on kids like me."
Only a proposal for south-central elementary school attendance boundaries met no opposition.
Much angst arose as a result of superintendent Kurt Browning's decision to override recommendations of the advisory committees reviewing both middle-high school plans.
That move prompted many parents to question the fairness of the procedure, which they contended lacked transparency.
The facts Browning relied upon "simply do not make sense, and they do not meet the guidelines set forth," parent Sasha Lash of Wesley Chapel said during the hearing.
Several people suggested the process needed revisions, down to the limited amount of time provided for Tuesday's session. The board allowed 60 minutes for each public hearing, meaning each speaker got just 90 seconds to make a case.
Board members said they empathized with the students and parents.
"Nobody ever wants their children to be rezoned," acknowledged vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong.
But they stood by the process, which has included ample opportunity since August for residents to submit comments and documents, as the majority backed Browning's recommendations.
"We have to make a decision, and we have to make it on the information we have," Altman said. "This issue does not come easy."
Only board member Steve Luikart voted against the two middle-high school rezoning proposals.
"I can't support any of the maps at this time," Luikart said, suggesting that students should have to switch schools only after fifth and eighth grades.
"It is extremely important students are not moved from a school until they finish that highest grade level," explained Luikart, who did support the new elementary school boundaries. "Rezoning should start at the completion of those levels, not in the middle."
Others observed that such a concept sounds good to some parents, but could cause just as many troubles for others. One problem could arise for families with more than one child, if they wind up attending separate schools.
"We have to balance all of those things," Armstrong said. "We have to look at all of the students that are in the county and what is going to make sense."
The fact is, she said, that the district is experiencing growth, and some students have to move to ease crowding.
Wiregrass Ranch High has been on double sessions for two years awaiting relief. Mitchell High is headed toward back toward enrollment levels that required new high schools nearby just seven years ago.
"Unfortunately, we cannot make everybody happy," Armstrong said.
Board member Colleen Beaudoin expressed dismay that the process has divided communities.
"It's been heartbreaking to watch neighborhoods pitted against neighborhoods," Beaudoin said. "I am concerned about it spreading down to our children."
Indeed, some of the students and parents had negative things to say about the schools they might be zoned into. They also made some allegations against one another about motivations, raising the specter of undue influence in the system.
At the end of the evening, some parents left in tears, upset that the board did not see things their way. Others, by contrast, thanked board members for doing the "right thing."
Altman reminded those who were among the last to depart that nothing has been finally decided. The parents and board will have another public hearing on Jan. 17 before the formal vote on the boundaries takes place.