Sunday, October 21, 2018
Pasco News

Pasco County judge refuses to stop west side school rezoning

In a late Thursday night ruling, after four hours of testimony, Pasco County judge Kimberly Sharpe Byrd declined to give some west-side parents the relief they'd been seeking for months.

Noting students return to classes in a week, Byrd decided that forcing the school district to undo its recently adopted attendance zones for Trinity-area middle and high schools would create undue disruption to the community. So she refused to order an injunction against the plan, which the parents had challenged as having been adopted in violation of Florida's open meetings law.

"Between the two competing interests, I am going to find it would not serve the public interest to issue an injunction," Byrd said after brief deliberations that followed the third day of her hearing, which ended after 8 p.m. Thursday.

She did not rule on the underlying complaint that members of the district's west-side rezoning advisory committee violated state Sunshine rules, which require that elected and appointed officials discuss in public all issues that are likely to come before their panel for a vote.

Related coverage: Parents' challenges to Pasco school rezoning decisions to be heard next week

Sharon Carlstedt Britton, the lawyer representing the complaining parents, contended in her summary statement that some advisory committee members had multiple conversations, including in social media, where they talked about rezoning topics such as which communities should be reassigned to different schools. Some of them privately communicated with district planning director Chris Williams about the specifics, she said, and none of the emails were shared even with others on the committee.

"We're talking about making law. And in this state, if you're going to make law, you have to do it in public. You can't do it in private emails," Britton argued.

She also spoke of how the advisory committee broke into separate groups during its sessions, having conversations that not everyone was privvy to hearing. 

"If that's the way we operate, then every single law we make can be done in secret. The problem is, we don't know what anybody was saying. We don't know what anybody's agenda is," she said. "There were people with agendas. That's one of the reasons we have the Sunshine Law. To know how people vote for things and why."

Representing the school district, attorney Dennis Alfonso contended the plaintiffs provided no proof that any advisory committee members talked about any voting issues in private. They might have discussed tangential matters, such as grandfathering of students or verifying family addresses, he said, but they did not cover the lines on the map, which was their sole charge.

"It's innuendo. It's a perception of a violation. And that does not a violation make," Alfonso said.

He further argued that the parents were trying to subvert the rezoning process by taking a "second bite at the apple." They already lost an administrative hearing that challenged the School Board's rule making process, he noted, and though under appeal, the rule has been in effect for nearly eight months. As the new status quo, that rule cannot simply be set aside, he argued.

Related coverage: Administrative judge sides with Pasco County school district in west-side rezoning challenge

Alfonso also contended that the plaintiffs did not meet the four legal prongs required to win an injunction, including preventing irreparable harm and serving the public interest. On that front, Judge Byrd agreed.

School district officials said they were relieved to have the decision go their way. In testimony, both Teaching and Learning supervisor Tammy Rabon and Mitchell High principal Jessica Schultz said they did not have plans to regroup if the judge did issue an injunction.

Schultz testified that such a result would force her to change teacher assignments and student schedules, revamp bus routes and add a fourth lunch period, among other things. Similar activities would have needed to take place at other affected schools.

With this outcome, those actions do not have to occur. 

The plaintiffs have not decided on what next steps to take, if any. 

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