Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Education

Zoning change disputes rejected

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK

Times Staff Writer

NEW PORT RICHEY — When Pasco County students return to classes Monday, they won't be facing any last-minute changes to their school assignments.

Late last week, after three days of testimony, a county judge turned down some parents' request to stop the revised attendance zones the School Board approved in January from taking effect.

Judge Kimberly Sharpe Byrd said the parents' complaint that the district violated state open meeting laws in creating the zones did not meet the four legal requirements to win a temporary injunction. In fact, Byrd said, the evidence presented suggested that the public would be more harmed by granting the action than by leaving the status quo intact.

She observed that two competing interests were at play in the case.

On the one hand, the plaintiffs alleged that a governmental body had acted inappropriately in its deliberations, with members of an advisory committee accused of privately discussing matters likely to come to them for a vote. On the other hand, the district contended that the process was handled properly, and to undo the boundaries at such a late date would throw the opening days of classes into chaos.

"I am going to find it would not serve the public interest to issue an injunction," Byrd said.

She noted that the attendance zones, which she called a rule, had been in effect since mid January, becoming the status quo by which district officials had planned for the coming school year. The irreparable harm was not there, she said, after hearing testimony that all affected families that applied to return to their original schools through choice were granted their requests.

Byrd did not rule on the underlying contention, though, that some members of the panel advising superintendent Kurt Browning on the zones for west Pasco middle and high schools violated the state's Sunshine Law.

A hearing date on those allegations has not been set.

Sharon Carlstedt Britton, the parents' lawyer, argued in her summary that this issue lies at the heart of good government.

"We're talking about making law," she said. "And in this state, if you're going to make law, you have to do it in public."

Britton accepted no excuses from the district, such as that the parent committee members had not received instructions on the Sunshine Law when they had their conversations, or that they conducted their communications before the committee had its first meeting.

She said the plaintiffs are still considering their options.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso suggested that continued action would be a "theoretical point," because the new attendance zones will have been in place close to a year before anything is likely to be decided. Even if a final decision goes against the district, he said, the biggest impact probably will be repaid legal fees — not redrawn maps.

Even so, he said, the district administration expects to revisit its process for amending attendance zones.

Alfonso suggested that if the district followed the state rule-making law strictly, parent input into the rezonings could decrease. In the past, superintendents have asked committees of parents and principals to recommend possible boundary changes, which the superintendent would then consider before making a recommendation to the board.

This time around, families upset with the proposals challenged the process, arguing the district did not give sufficient public notice or properly follow state procedures in creating the rules. A hearing officer ruled against the complaint, and the families have appealed.

Followed to the letter, Alfonso said, the law would allow the board to publish a rule, hold a public workshop and adopt the rule afterward — much like Hillsborough County schools do.

"It's not greater parent participation," he said. "It's less."

Additional rezonings are anticipated, as Pasco's enrollment continues to grow and crowding remains a concern. Plans call for at least four new schools in the next five years.

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

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