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Legislators allowed students to go to school across county lines; now come the details

Fast-growing enrollment at schools like Wiregrass Ranch High make it difficult for officials to determine when a school is full. The issue of capacity will be important as school districts work to implement a new state law allowing students to attend any public school they want, in any county, as long as there is room for them.
Published Jun. 19, 2016

In the waning hours of their 2016 session, Florida lawmakers approved a bill expanding families' school options across county lines.

Education choice advocates trumpeted the move as a bold step to let students attend any public school in the state. They equated it with Florida's broad charter school and tax credit scholarship programs.

But officials closest to the ground were quick to point out that key facts got lost along the way.

For one, many Florida districts — including most in the Tampa Bay area — have allowed cross-border transfers for years. For another, student moves would not be uncontrolled.

"What people are hearing is that you can take your children anywhere," said Carol McGowin, student enrollment director for Orange County schools. "Really, it's where you can take your child to a school that is under capacity as set by the school district."

And the definition of "capacity," McGowin and others note, is not the same across districts. Some districts determine how full schools are based on students-per-square-foot, while others count children in classrooms and yet others take program requirements into account.

A classroom might be built for 22 children, for instance, but when used for a special education program it might accommodate no more than eight students. Or schools might offer prekindergarten, which takes up space but doesn't count as official enrollment.

The Department of Education on Friday issued some guidelines to help districts as they write policies implementing the new law, which takes effect for the 2017-18 academic year.

School district leaders, who pushed for the extra year to get ready for the changes, weren't waiting. Officials from several Central Florida districts have met three times already, most recently on Thursday, to begin looking for agreement on terms by themselves.

"We're having discussions and identifying the questions to see what we need to answer," said Chris Williams, chief planner for the Pasco County School District.

Most everyone involved has a similar goal in mind: clear rules, fairly applied and widely disseminated.

Getting there is a different story.

Some districts are embracing the collaboration. They reason that the more their approaches merge, the better for parents and students seeking to use the system.

It could prove confusing, or worse, if a family encountered one process in Manatee County and another in Pinellas, officials suggested.

"I think for the public's benefit, the closer we are together, it makes more sense," McGowin said.

Others, however, aren't keen on strict uniformity. Districts differ, they reason, and as a result should have rules that reflect local demands.

Hillsborough leaders, for instance, are not interested in changing their interdistrict transfer rules, which already serve hundreds of children, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. But they're participating in the conversation, she added, to make sure those districts that are newly embracing the concept adopt something "sensible" that doesn't complicate the situation for all the others.

"Every district has been able to come up with their own student assignment plan" to this point, agreed Pinellas School Board member Carol Cook, who heads the Florida School Boards Association legislative committee. "They need to figure out if they need to change something."

The key, Cook said, is to make sure people can't accuse districts of changing policies to keep them out or to benefit one group over another.

"If that happens, that's when the Legislature will step in" with its own definitions, she said. "That is not what we want."

Even though it seems like districts have a long time to act, they really don't. Many of them open school choice applications for 2017 in the fall or early winter.

"It's a tight turnaround," said McGowin, adding that procedures need to be adopted by year end.

After they settle on common terms for concepts such as when a school has space — or at least agree to disagree — the districts will turn to procedures. What forms will a parent need to complete? What will application windows look like?

Perhaps most critical: How will districts track enrollment projections, given the wild card of children coming from outside county lines?

That's a concern, particularly for booming markets such as Orange, Hillsborough and Pasco counties, where districts are building new schools each year to keep pace with local growth.

Already redrawing attendance zones as new campuses open, officials have expressed worries about allowing children from other counties to take seats that likely will be claimed in short order by new in-county families.

"That is what scares people the most, particularly in higher growth districts," said Bill Lawrence, student assignment director for Pinellas County Schools.

Complicating matters, the new law makes clear that children who are allowed to enter a school through an interdistrict transfer may remain until they complete the school's final grade level.

Some districts, such as Hillsborough, don't make students reapply annually, although they must file papers each year for auditing purposes. But others do, to make sure they're not tripped up by class size compliance or other related matters.

Pinellas County doesn't have rampant new home construction. But it does see enough development in pockets that it has required out-of-district transfer students to reapply every year, just in case seats are taken up.

"The law says a choice student cannot displace a local student," Lawrence said. "But once you've given that seat away, you've given that seat away, and the law says you can't take it back."

McGowin, who is facilitating discussions among the Central Florida districts, said the issue will boil down to that definition of capacity. Districts will have to determine how far into the future their enrollment projections will count in the measure, she said, and make very clear to parents where seats are available and, just as importantly, where they're not.

The Central Florida district officials plan to meet at least twice more this summer to talk about possible approaches to this latest school choice initiative.

"At this point, I don't think anybody has come up with a definitive way," said Joseph Ranaldi, executive director of operations for Seminole County schools. "We're working together to find the best way so we're doing something relatively common."

Whatever the outcome, it's a good sign that the districts are collaborating, said Seminole School Board chairwoman Tina Calderone, who called for the conversations while head of the Central Florida coalition.

At the end of the day, she said, "You want to make sure you have capacity for all the new white pipes coming out of the ground. … There is no easy answer to this one."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at jsolochek@tampabay.com or (813) 909-4614. Follow @JeffSolochek.

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