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Private school may have to feel growing pains

Growing pains in West Pasco are felt most acutely in public schools. To better cope with the flood of new students, school administrators have proposed a redistricting plan that would more evenly distribute elementary students between schools. Unfortunately, the plan calls for an end to the fundamental school concept at Richey Elementary. Parents and students of the school are understandably disappointed, but fairness demands that the Pasco County School Board adopt the redistricting plan and transform Richey to a neighborhood school.

Richey Elementary has been a fundamental school since 1977 when parents across the country were calling for back-to-basics reforms of public schools. Richey's curriculum conforms to the back-to-basics philosophy. The school requires parents to sign a contract supporting school discipline. Students are held to a higher standard of discipline and may be permanently expelled for repeated violations. Enrollment at Richey is limited. Unlike other Pasco schools, Richey's classes are not disrupted by new students during the school year.

In 1994, the curriculum at Richey is largely indistinguishable from the curriculum at other Pasco elementary schools. The issue of enrollment, however, has become paramount. Richey's enrollment has remained virtually constant during the past 10 years as other schools swelled with new arrivals. Since 1983, Richey's average daily enrollment increased by about 1 percent. Average daily enrollment at Anclote Elementary, for example, increased by 10 percent. Total average daily enrollment in Pasco schools, meanwhile, increased by about 40 percent.

In a more perfect state, taxpayers would provide enough money to accommodate growth in Pasco County and leave Richey Fundamental in tact. But reality dictates hard choices. The Pasco school district faces severe overcrowding in some of its elementary schools. Enrollment at Fox Hollow and Deer Park elementary schools is projected to surpass 1,100 next year, unless the redistricting plan is approved. Under the plan, Fox Hollow would enroll 994 pupils; Deer Park would enroll 884 pupils. Such facts leave the School Board with no responsible choice but to approve the plan and accept the fundamental school designation as a necessary casualty.

Some Pasco residents will not be disappointed to see Richey transformed to a neighborhood school. The rap on Richey always has been that it is an elitist, educational bastion for Pasco's upper crust. Though a sizeable portion of the school's students do come from wealthier families, the school always has been open on a first-come, first-served basis. The misperception of elitism was unimportant as long as the reality of the school system was egalitarian. But the misperception verges on reality the longer Richey is permitted to insulate itself from growth. An atmosphere of inequality is intolerable in a public school system, especially one that will need strong public support for spending on new schools in years to come.

Approval of the redistricting plan will not unduly jar Richey students. All of the children who attend Richey, as well as their siblings, will be permitted to follow their teachers to Cotee Elementary where most of the fundamental teaching concepts will be continued.

Pasco school Superintendent Tom Weightman, nonetheless, contends that the state's Blueprint 2000 program renders moot the fundamental concept.

What Blueprint 2000 clearly does is empower parents and teachers to help administer schools. If advisory councils of parents and teachers wish to make changes at their schools, Weightman and the School Board must cooperate as long as such changes are constitutional and do not interfere with or impose unfair burdens on other schools.