Saturday, August 18, 2018
Education

Pasco parents express frustrations as school rezoning forges ahead

Two years into the debate, little new remained to be said about Pasco County’s west-side school attendance zones during a Tuesday public hearing.

Twenty-three residents spoke at the 5 p.m. event — a number perhaps dampened by rain and going-home traffic — with the bulk of them living in the areas most impacted by the proposed changes, Longleaf and Ellington.

Most opposed the superintendent’s recommendation that their neighborhoods be reassigned, although a couple expressed pleasure with the programs offered at the schools where they’d be sent.

But regardless of peoples’ personal views on the specifics, a common message arose within the comments. They wanted a more comprehensive approach to the district’s crowding issues.

"This process has caused unnecessary stress," said parent leader Christine Stahl, whose neighborhood would not be affected. "I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be back here next year, or in the near future."

Superintendent Kurt Browning assured the audience no further west-side rezonings are expected after this one, until new schools are built.

Longleaf parent Tammy Ciske, a vocal opponent of the plan, told the School Board that too many questions and concerns continued to swirl about why certain areas are slated for rezoning while others are not. She said she did not feel confident that an inclusive approach to searching for solutions, working with parents who have volunteered to help, had been accomplished.

"Please do not pull our children out of schools they love before exhausting all other means," Ciske urged the board.

The plan would allow students in the schools through open enrollment to remain through the highest grade level. It also grandfathers in students at the highest grade level in a school.

Such accommodations limit the number of moves for children currently in Seven Springs and Mitchell.

Board members listened for 70 minutes. Then they took a step that, by past standards, would be considered unusual.

They asked several questions of staff. They focused on issues that parents have raised, such as whether double sessions could be an alternative to rezoning, and how new programs such as Cambridge at Anclote might affect the enrollment numbers at each campus.

Many of these questions appeared designed to elicit specific answers the district wanted on the record, in case another legal challenge arises.

Some of the parent comments, for that matter, also aimed to get certain information into the transcript. They made pointed references to the state rule-making law, for instance, suggesting the district had not followed it — just as they alleged a year ago.

But others indicated board members heard the complaints and are looking for answers. Board members Alison Crumbley and Colleen Beaudoin homed in on address verification, something parents have demanded to prove their children aren’t being relocated while others who lie get to remain in the schools.

Crumbley called confirming student addresses a "really important piece" that must occur regularly.

Deputy superintendent Ray Gadd said the administration had begun a more in-depth process, based on the Palm Beach County school district’s model. He called parent efforts to identify students with false addresses "completely bogus."

Working with the county property appraiser, Gadd said, the district analyzed the addresses submitted to Mitchell and Seven Springs, in comparison to a variety of legal documents and records. He said an initial run turned up 162 discrepancies, which now must be examined.

Even if all were deemed unacceptable, and the students eventually removed, Gadd observed the numbers affected would be around 3 percent — not enough to call off a rezoning, he said.

He expected address verification to continue into the future.

As to whether the district can avoid rezoning current students, and deal only with new growth, officials said they were limited by resources, timing and other factors not always in their control.

After the meeting, Browning said he believed his plan slowly moves the district toward enrollment balance.

He touted the address verification, reassignment of neighborhoods already approved a year earlier but canceled on a "technicality," and the rezoning of future subdivisions.

"The staff really dug deep and came up with what I thought were thorough answers," Browning said. "The question is now whether moms and dads believe our answers."

Many left the hearing annoyed, muttering complaints and obscenities. Board chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong reminded them that they can continue to send comments via email or come to the board’s next two meetings, April 17 and May 1, to express their views.

Parent Melissa Alexander said she’d be there: "I’ve blocked off the time on my calendar."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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