Two Longleaf families file legal challenge to Pasco County school rezoning
Two Pasco County families have asked the state Division of Administrative Hearings to stop the Pasco County School Board's formal adoption of new attendance zones for southwest middle and high schools, claiming the board did not follow state law on rulemaking during its deliberations Dec. 20 and Jan. 17.
In their petition challenging the validity of the proposed rule, the families contend that the School Board, among other things:
- Failed to ensure that all staff who helped create the zoning rule were available to explain the rule;
- Failed to respond to questions and comments about the rule;
- Limited speakers to 90 seconds, and did not allow some speakers to comment, in effect preventing affected people adequate opportunity to present evidence and arguments on the issues.
The petition also details several other alleged missteps, including such things as defects with the district's publication of its rulemaking notice.
"It shouldn't come as a surprise," said petitioner Jim Stanley, who sent a letter to the district ahead of its hearings to question the process. "This was absolutely something we had prepared to do. We were certainly hoping we wouldn't have to go this direction."
School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso said he had received the petition and was reviewing it. He said he believed the district acted appropriately in its rezoning procedures.
Stanley said his family and the Unger family, which joined him in the petition, planned to file a complaint in court, as well, challenging the substance of the decision.
"We believe it was arbitrary and capricious. It is the very definition of it," Stanley said.
Stanley's daughter, Lauren, is a freshman at Mitchell High School. The rezoning would send her and her neighbors to River Ridge High School next fall. He said his daughter would not have the same access to an Academy for the Medical Arts, which Mitchell has but River Ridge does not.
She also would be separated from friends she has attended school with since elementary school. The district should bear a greater responsibility for solving its school capacity issues than the way it approached the problems, said Stanley, who moved into the Longleaf neighborhood specifically for Lauren to attend Mitchell.
"We've been willing to work with the School Board and superintendent on coming up with a comprehensive plan on dealing with growth," he said. "We understand that change happens. In a county that has as much growth as we have, we recognize it's inevitable. What we don't want is irrational, unpredictable change."
At the very least, he suggested, families deserve more advanced notice for what is expected, so they can make appropriate decisions.
Ruth Melton, governmental affairs director for the Florida School Boards Association, said the challenge of Pasco's rezoning effort could reverberate statewide. Growing districts across Florida, including Seminole and Palm Beach, have confronted parents with similar concerns that their children's educational lives would be disrupted by forcing them to change schools.
Many school boards follow processes similar to Pasco's. And while boards often must rezone to meet rules such as class size, and have powers outlined in statute, such as the ability to limit public input, they also must treat the public fairly, said Melton, a one-time chair of Miami-Dade's citizen rezoning committee.
"There are legitimate concerns that can be raised by communities," Melton said. "They have every right to question whether or not it was done appropriately. We will just have to wait and see whether the court agrees."
Several parents and students from Longleaf made impassioned pleas to the School Board at public hearings to take a more comprehensive approach to rezoning. They asked the board to look into whether some students at Mitchell were attending with false addresses, and to remove them first.
They also called upon the board to consider rezoning neighborhoods that have not been fully built out, rather than their existing community that's so close to Mitchell High both in distance and school culture.
But none of that mattered, Stanley lamented. He hoped the challenge would prompt district officials to change their ways.
"What is the plan? Who is next?" he said. "The folks who think they are safe right now, they probably shouldn't feel that way. Give them a road map."