Thursday, January 18, 2018
Education

School district lawyer issues reminder of limitations on political activity

Days after classes let out in Pasco County schools, the district's lawyer reminded school officials about the rules limiting political activity on campus.

The timing might have seemed off, given that students, teachers and staffers had largely vacated the buildings for the next two months. But School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso explained that the move wasn't that odd.

"We have three open seats next year," Alfonso said, referring to the 2018 School Board elections.

Some candidates are getting a head start, collecting petition signatures to get their names on the ballot, he noted, and they might naturally come to schools seeking support. They might also look to use schools as backdrops for photos in ads or campaign promotional materials, he added.

And since the district cannot fully control candidates, Alfonso said, it made sense to tell employees in advance what is allowable on district property.

According to policy, that's not much: no campaigning on campus, no advertisements and no school-endorsed student performances at political events.

Such issues have come up in Pasco schools before. A 2012 Mitt Romney rally at Land O'Lakes High School raised concerns that the district appeared to be promoting a presidential candidate, for instance.

In 2010, the School Board denied Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink access to a classroom to create a campaign ad about education. Board members said they didn't want to play favorites.

Alfonso said he hoped his letter would clarify the do's and don'ts well enough that no problems crop up. So far, two non-incumbents have filed their intention to seek School Board seats.

EMPLOYEE RELATIONS: Upon taking the helm of the United School Employees of Pasco on June 1, one of the first orders of business for Don Peace was meeting with superintendent Kurt Browning.

Browning and former USEP president Kenny Blankenship had an infamously contentious relationship, and Peace based his campaign for the post on returning civility to the interactions.

The two leaders got together on June 2 — Peace's second day on the job — and walked away with more positive vibes.

Browning said he anticipated more collaboration and conversation than what had occurred over the past three years, which were marked by contract negotiation impasse, several grievances and frequent criticism.

Peace shared the optimism.

"I think we are in agreement that we need to move forward in a positive manner, that we need to work together," he said. "We agreed to keep the lines of conversation open both ways."

Such talk has been rare lately.

The two have tentatively planned to meet at least once a month to discuss issues, with the goal of resolving concerns before they become too large.

Peace also has met with district staff and School Board members, and he has been well received so far.

"I am very much looking forward to working with him," said Kathy Scalise, district employee relations director.

That opportunity will come quickly, as the sides already have scheduled dates to begin new contract talks. The school-related personnel bargaining is to begin Monday, with instructional negotiations to start Tuesday.

IMPACT FEES: With the first of two public hearings regarding impact fees fast approaching, district officials are working to smooth over any potential pitfalls that could cause their requested increase to stumble.

A source of pushback remains apartment builders.

A spokesman for the group said during a late May session of the county's Development Review Committee that apartments would shoulder an unfair amount of the costs if the proposed fee on new residential construction goes through.

After that session, builder Mark Ogier, representing the Bay Area Apartment Association, continued to send emails to district officials, explaining how a 185 percent increase would bring new multifamily development to a halt. Dubious district officials suggested that Ogier's information was faulty, and asked for some objective data while also offering to meet with him.

"Lake County, Osceola County, Orange County have higher impact fees than us, and I have seen no evidence that multifamily development has come to a halt," wrote deputy superintendent Ray Gadd.

Ogier responded the proposed increase "will not be able to be absorbed." He suggested that securing debt will become problematic, as would getting equity funding.

It becomes a question of how much risk to take on, Ogier said, noting he could build elsewhere.

"Please don't misunderstand my resistance to this proposal as a lack of empathy to the issues the School Board is challenged with," he wrote. "The School Infrastructure Funding Committee came up with alternative recommendations that I believe are better long term solutions to the whole community. Halting or slowing apartment development is not the solution."

This line of opposition appears to be the primary objection to emerge. Many residents who have come face to face with school reassignments because of crowding, which they blame on new homes rising faster than new schools, have urged commissioners to back the proposal.

Even some real estate and construction groups have offered support, noting it is difficult to sell new homes in areas with crowded schools and the threat of changing attendance boundaries.

Public hearings before county commissioners are scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in New Port Richey and July 11 in Dade City.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at (813) 909-4614 or [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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