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DEBATE STARTS TO FILL SCHOOL

Attendance zones for the new high school get their initial airing today.

As construction continues in earnest on Hernando County's newest high school, the time has come for the School Board to consider how to fill it.

A large majority of the students at the school north of Weeki Wachee next fall will live west of U.S. 19, according to a preliminary zoning proposal up for review at a board workshop at 2 p.m. today.

And upperclassmen at Central and Springstead high schools who might be worried about being forced to switch to the new school can breathe a little easier.

District staffers are recommending that only ninth- and 10th-graders attend the new high school in its first year and then become its first upperclassmen in 2011 and 2012.

The $55 million school is about 5 miles north of State Road 50 on U.S. 19 and will have a capacity of about 1,700 students.

The bulk of the proposed attendance zone is composed of the area west of U.S. 19 from Pasco to Citrus counties.

But the proposed zone might also contain a densely populated chunk of Spring Hill east of U.S. 19, said Jim Knight, director of student services. That portion extends from the Timber Pines area south to the Pasco-Hernando county line, bordered roughly on the east by Deltona Boulevard and Waterfall Drive.

The zone might also extend east of U.S. 19 in the northern reaches of the county.

It's still unclear how many students would show up if these proposals become reality, Knight said. He expects to have an estimate by next month, based on the latest enrollment figures and transportation maps.

The plan is up for initial discussion today, and the district will seek feedback from parents and hold public meetings before a final version goes to the board for approval, Knight said.

The new school's zone is part of a larger redistricting effort to balance the student bodies at the county's three other zoned high schools: Central, Springstead and Hernando. The aim is to have 230 to 300 vacant seats at each. Central and Springstead are operating beyond capacity, Knight said.

"The law says we have to equalize wherever we can," he said.

A portion of Springstead's northern attendance zone that extends to State Road 50 would be lopped off and given to Central, Knight said. That's not ideal, he conceded, because students who live closer to Springstead would wind up at Central.

"But that's one of the most densely populated parts of the county, and we have to get Springstead's numbers down," he said.

As for starting the new high school with freshmen and sophomores, that's the same way Central and Springstead opened, Knight said. School officials agree that juniors and seniors are too far along to be required to move.

"Once students have been at a school for a while, they get to be a part of that school and don't want to leave," he said.

There are other benefits to that strategy, though. The school wouldn't have to assign staff and schedule classes for a relatively small number of upperclassmen. A varsity sports program could be put off for a year.

The drawback: Central and Springstead would not see a large drop in population until the 2011 school year.

But the relief still will be significant, Knight said.

At least one School Board member expressed concern Monday over the zoning proposal.

Board member Sandra Nicholson said she has never liked the site of the new high school. Now she's worried that her concerns will be validated because some students in the southwestern portion of the county will have a trek ahead of them.

"That's an awful long distance," she said. "That's been one of my concerns from the very beginning."

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The board will also consider today recommendations to deal with crowding at Explorer K-8 in Spring Hill.

The proposal would shift a northwestern portion of Explorer's zone to Fox Chapel Middle and Spring Hill Elementary schools for the 2010-11 school year.

A southeastern portion of Explorer's zone would go to J.D. Floyd K-8 in Spring Hill.

Those two moves would free up at least 135 seats at Explorer next year, Knight said.

Making the changes to Explorer's zone for next year addresses the urgent need there and will prevent some families from being affected by rezoning twice in two years, Knight said.

The district will undertake a major rezoning effort for 2011-12 when a K-5 school opens next door to the new high school.

That will require changes to the attendance zones for Moton, Suncoast, Westside, Deltona and Pine Grove elementary schools.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

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