West-side parents continue to fight school rezoning efforts

Published March 13 2018

A group of west-side Pasco County parents whose neighborhood might be reassigned to different middle and high schools has asked the School Board to consider different options they suggest would cost less money and angst.

The parents, including leaders of the lawsuit that resulted in a ruling against the district’s past practices, have submitted a proposal to "draw out" the current process, that is slated to culminate with a board vote on May 1.

They rely on the language of the state rule-making law, which they insisted the district follow in 2016 and 2017. One of their concerns is that the district did not provide a sufficient analysis of the regulatory costs associated with the rezoning.

They said the district has not discussed the expenses of added student busing, for example, or of lowered property values that might reduce tax revenue.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso told the School Board he plans to respond to that request for information on costs. He did not elaborate.

The parents also have argued that the district might pursue lower-cost regulatory actions, such as adding wings to existing schools, or conducting a thorough check of all student addresses. They also call for an outside consultant to draw boundary lines.

Those are some of the same demands they made when the district first embarked on west-side rezoning in fall 2016.

"It is our sincere hope that you will accept these alternatives in the spirit of collaboration in which they were created and submitted and that further legal conflict will not be necessary," parent Jim Stanley wrote in a letter to the district.

District planning director Chris Williams said he is working on a response to the parents.

The group finally asked for a "draw out" of the procedure, contending the district’s March 12 public workshop on the rezoning proposal would not provide adequate opportunity for people to explain their views and receive answers. They noted at the time of their filing that the district had not listed any steps to provide necessary protections under the law.

The district did not reschedule the workshop. Superintendent Kurt Browning contended the residents could attend to determine whether their concerns were met.

Stanley said his group had been coordinating with other neighborhoods that might be affected, and each is working on its own responses and concerns.

BUDGET PRIORITIES: Enhancing school safety remains a top priority for the Pasco County School Board.

None of its elementary schools have resource officers, for instance, and many have open access from several entry points.

But the cost of meeting these needs, now heightened in the aftermath of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High shooting in February, could hinder the board’s desire to accomplish other things.

"It is going to be an incredibly tight year," superintendent Kurt Browning told the board during a recent budget workshop.

Chief finance officer Olga Swinson said she anticipated a net added increase in revenue of about $12 million for 2018-19, based on preliminary information from the Legislature. Of that amount, she said, much will be "restricted" to the safe school uses that lawmakers are debating.

Just the expense of increasing the number of resource officers, which already cost the district more than $1 million not covered by the Sheriff’s Office, could prove astronomical, officials noted. To equip and pay one new officer approaches $150,000.

The Legislature’s direction is to not allow districts to keep their tax rates flat, to take advantage of rising property values. As a result, board members said, they are unlikely to be able to tackle their top additional priorities.

Board member Allen Altman said he feared the district would have "little wiggle room to expand academic opportunities for students, because we’re getting other mandates from the state."

Other items that could go by the wayside included board members’ desires to increase teacher pay, add guidance counselors and expand prekindergarten programs.

Also on board member wish lists were preparing for an east-county technical high school, offering STEM programs to younger students and bolstering struggling career academies.

"My other big thing was kind of the reverse," chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said. "I want to make sure we keep the fund balance. We saw during the hurricane the importance of keeping that fund balance level."

The board routinely maintains reserves of about 5 percent.

Browning said his staff will continue to review and refine its budget projections. He added that they also intend to work up proposals that include the board’s priorities, in case they can be afforded.

To save money, he said, the district will consider freezing hiring and purchasing after spring break, as it has in the past.

"I don’t want us to leave here today thinking all is doom and gloom," Browning said. "This board has been in worse places before."

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