Pasco vote displaces hundreds of students. For some, ‘a very painful civics lesson.’

Opposed parents pledge to again challenge the action.
The Pasco County School Board holds a special session May 29, 2018, to adopt west-side attendance zone changes. [Jeffrey S. Solochek]
The Pasco County School Board holds a special session May 29, 2018, to adopt west-side attendance zone changes. [Jeffrey S. Solochek]
Published May 29, 2018|Updated May 29, 2018

Nearly 500 Pasco County students could wind up at different schools in August after the School Board adopted new attendance boundaries Tuesday.

The board approved changes that would send the Longleaf and Ellington neighborhoods of the booming Trinity area from crowded Mitchell High and Seven Springs Middle schools into the slightly less filled campuses of River Ridge High and Middle.

It also agreed to send a section of New Port Richey north of Moog Road to Gulf High School instead of Anclote High.

The affected families will have a week to apply to re-enroll in the schools they are being zoned out of, if they wish. If space is available, they could be approved.

"Families impacted by the rezoning will have the first opportunity" for those open seats, choice supervisor Tammy Rabon said.

The action came nearly two years after the board first began discussing boundary changes as a way to move students from overcrowded schools into ones with available seats. During that time, the board approved a map, saw it voided in court, changed its process and tried again.

Related: Judge voids Pasco County school district's 2017 west-side rezoning 

Parents from across west Pasco County tried to influence the changes throughout, proposing different sets of maps, questioning the district's underlying data and challenging the board's procedures.

"We really appreciate that input from you, even though the vote may or may not go the way you want, because it is impossible to make everyone happy," chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said Tuesday, just before the 5-0 vote favoring superintendent Kurt Browning's recommendation.

"I do have to agree with my fellow board members that this is going to be the best decision we can make for the students as a whole," Armstrong said.

Board members said they backed the plan after spending countless hours visiting with residents, driving through communities and poring over data. They suggested that some of the parents' ideas, such as improved address verification to root out children lying about their residence, helped ease the numbers but did not alleviate the need to rezone.

The superintendent's proposal, board member Colleen Beaudoin said, appeared "the fairest" of the possibilities.

Some of the affected families who attended the meeting continued to disagree.

Related: Pasco parents express frustrations as school rezoning forges ahead 

"I want to go to Mitchell," said Lennon Tobey, a rising sophomore whose home was reassigned to River Ridge with the change. "I have friends and family there. It's a mile from my house. I've already made ties to the community."

Her dad, Bret Tobey, has frequently urged the School Board to take a more methodical and clear approach to rezoning. He contended the latest change does little to address ongoing housing growth in the area or to provide relief to the schools.

"This is a very painful civics lesson," he said. "If it solved a big community problem, I think the kids could buy into it."

Jim Stanley, a parent who has sued to stop the changes, said he planned to continue his legal challenge. He had filed an administrative hearing request that had been scheduled for May 24, but withdrew it.

Related: West Pasco parent files formal challenge to school district rezoning proposal  

"We have a couple of different avenues we're going to follow up on," said Stanley, who did not attend the board meeting.

He is appealing a 2017 administrative judge's ruling that found the district followed state rule making laws. That case is in the 2nd District Court of Appeal.

He said he also would submit a complaint with the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, arguing the district set up its attendance zones to arbitrarily keep Anclote High School's population low-income, so it could qualify for more federal Title I funds.

"It's an abuse of the process," Stanley said.

District officials have not seen that complaint.

Browning said he did not agree, though, that the district's rezoning process was unfair or unclear.

"It is as transparent as Chapter 120 [Florida Statutes] makes it," he said, adding that challenges are part of the process that the district will deal with as they arise.

Other west Pasco parents whose neighborhoods avoided being sent to different schools said they still had some concerns that they won't be out of the woods so long as more homes rise and schools grow more crowded.

Dave Davis, who helped organize an early effort to delay the rezonings, said he was encouraged by Browning's commitment to the board that he would try to fill open spaces at Anclote High — the school with the most vacancies — through choice and programs rather than another new map.

"I'm confident with what Mr. Browning said about future zonings," added parent Christine Stahl, another leader in the group that tried since 2016 to forestall boundary adjustments.

She added that, like it or not, it sounded like the board did its homework in reviewing the zones.

They agreed with board member Steve Luikart, who observed that much of the angst and dispute might be avoided in the future if the district plans boundary changes earlier and considers allowing more students to remain in their current schools until they finish the last grade level there.

The district needs to start "putting those things on the calendar, the sooner the better," Luikart said.

Browning said that is his goal. The next changes are slated for east Pasco, when the district opens a new middle school on the Cypress Creek Middle-High campus, now slated for 2020.

"We're already having discussions about what that rezoning is going to look like," he said, adding quickly that no maps have been presented.

But "Seven Oaks parents know now we're coming to take their children" out of Long Middle and Wiregrass Ranch High, he said. "They're the ones that are subject to move."