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East Pasco parents say district erred in school rezoning process

LAND O'LAKES — For the second time in a month, a group of Pasco County parents tried Wednesday to convince a hearing officer that the School Board acted improperly in adopting new school zones for 2017-18.

Six Wesley Chapel families and their lawyer spent nearly seven hours arguing that the board failed to follow state rule-making laws, landing at a decision they considered arbitrary. Their arguments mirrored those made by some Trinity-area parents over a similar rezoning for west Pasco.

Both rezonings, which affect thousands of students, aim to ease crowding at existing campuses and fill open seats in others. A new middle-high school is opening in Wesley Chapel in the fall.

The plaintiffs did not know about the rezoning until well after the process began, attorney Robert Stines argued, and the district did nothing formal to inform them of the rule making until several meetings passed.

"They were not provided a meaningful opportunity to participate," Stines said.

Lawyers for the school district countered that the administration let people know about the early activities through social media and websites, later sending emails and calls in advance of a November parent meeting.

"Many chose not to participate," said School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso.

He also reiterated his position that the rezoning is not rule making, despite language in district policy and documents. The board has separate authority in law to assign students, he said.

That question of whether the district followed rule-making law, or if it had to, will be Judge D.W. Alexander's call.

"In the end, if he says the rules were violated, this is going to be a huge thing for the state of Florida," said plaintiff Doug Wood, whose three children were reassigned to new schools. "I believe we as petitioners made our case."

Parents took the stand first, explaining how the rezoning would negatively impact their families.

They spoke of stress in their homes, and concerns they might not have the same academic opportunities if forced to change schools. They also questioned superintendent Kurt Browning's recommendation of an option that countered his advisory committee, and in their view did not meet the district's rezoning guidelines.

If Browning would have clearly outlined his rationale, parent Larondar Stone said, "I wouldn't be here. … He did not feel he needed to explain to us."

District planning director Chris Williams testified that Browning did explain his recommendation, adding that the superintendent had no obligation to simply accept the committee's proposal.

If Alexander sides with the plaintiffs, the board could have to redo its process.

Without an order, the district is moving ahead with the new boundaries.

A ruling is expected this spring.

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