LAND O'LAKES — Hundreds of families got caught off-guard last summer when the Pasco County School District rejected school choice applications that, in past years, would have won easy approval.
The new get-tough posture aimed to comply with the final phase of Florida's 2002 class size amendment, turning down nearly one-third of the 2,705 on-time requests for children to attend schools other than the ones they were zoned to attend. Even fewer of the 1,111 late applications were accepted.
Pasco officials learned this week that they met the class size standard, and they began distributing proposed changes to local school choice rules to acknowledge the new reality that upset so many parents four months ago.
"You need to revisit your plan any time there's a big change," said Lizette Alexander, director of student services. Calculating class size "class by class has forced us to do this."
If approved, the rules will make it tougher to get school choice.
Exceptions would be contingent upon space available at the classroom level, and not just within a school. In past years, general school capacity was enough, but no longer.
One possible outcome of that change could be that families get their school of choice for one but not all children. The district received several complaints over the summer from parents angered that their kids were placed in different schools.
The updated policy, which goes to the School Board on Tuesday, sets sibling placement as a priority. But it's no guarantee.
Putting brothers and sisters in the same school through choice will occur "whenever feasible," the proposal states, noting that several factors will come into play, including space and available appropriate educational services.
If a school reaches its stated capacity, the district would label the school "frozen." Anyone applying afterward would be given a lottery number to gain future access. The seats would open four weeks into the semester, after the 20-day count takes place and teachers are reallocated based on class size needs throughout the district.
Parents would have to decide at that time whether it's worth uprooting their child from one classroom to take a seat elsewhere.
Families still would be able to apply for transfers based on hardships. For the first time, though, the district will require documentation of a specific medical, emotional, psychological or legal hardship.
"Hardships exist on a continuum," Alexander observed. "What is a hardship to one family is not always a hardship in the general sense of the word. … This is meant to alert parents that these are serious issues and not just for preference."
Over the summer, there also seemed to be some confusion over whether families needed to reapply for seats in schools where their children attended through choice but that had been rezoned with the opening of new schools. Alexander stressed that if a school zone changes, parents using choice to get their children into that school must reapply.
"With boundary changes on the east side, it's imperative that they understand this well," she said, referring to proposed new attendance boundaries for several middle and high schools in and around Wesley Chapel.
The schools losing students because of crowding, in particular John Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High, would be unlikely to have any seats remaining after the new zones take effect. Parents still might apply for choice into them, though, and they would be placed on a list in case space becomes available.
In the past, the Pasco School District made efforts to grant choice requests whenever possible. The rejection rate annually was less than 10 percent.
Support for open enrollment remains. But as School Board member Alison Crumbley said, there's not much room to avoid these policy changes given the state's clear class size mandate.
"If the school has already met its numbers, you can't" approve transfers in, she said.
Added Alexander, "When we had more leeway and our schools weren't so crowded and we didn't have class by class, we were very favorable to doing these things. Those were different times."
The next application period for school choice in Pasco is set for Feb. 1 through March 1.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.