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Pasco braces for outcry as officials consider changes to school zones

LAND O'LAKES — Mel Freeman strode to the podium Tuesday to let the Pasco County School Board know just how angry he was.

He had recently moved his family to the bustling Trinity area of west Pasco, specifically to get his son into well-regarded Mitchell High. But now that opportunity is in doubt, he said, because the board plans to draw new attendance zones for the rapidly growing school.

"I just want the people who are making the decisions to understand the impacts they are having on some peoples' lives," he told the board. "I'm very upset about this."

He wasn't alone. About two dozen other parents also attended the board meeting to express their dismay, an unusually strong showing for 9:30 a.m. on a work day.

School Board members and staff expected an outcry from residents in the comparatively prosperous section of the county after word got out that crowding at Mitchell would lead to revised boundaries — especially since there's no new school to accompany the changes.

"This is probably one of the most difficult things we deal with," board vice chairman Allen Altman said of the process that removes children and families from schools they have chosen.

But crowding is taxing school operations, while nearby Anclote, Gulf and River Ridge high schools sit hundreds below their built capacity. To district leaders, it makes sense to balance the load.

The district also is preparing to redraw boundaries for elementary schools in the Odessa area, and high schools in the Wesley Chapel region, as new schools open to reduce crowding in those parts of the county.

Officials have heard some parents say they would prefer to remain in their school, even with the burgeoning student enrollment. But not everyone is so forgiving of overcrowded classrooms, superintendent Kurt Browning said.

He looked to the east side of his own district, where Wiregrass Ranch High School currently runs on two shifts in order to handle its nearly 2,500 students while awaiting a new school to open next fall. Wiregrass Ranch adopted its 10-period day as a last resort, after it could not fit another portable on campus and its cafeteria, gym and other amenities could not meet their service needs in a regular day.

Mitchell faced similar intense crowding less than a decade ago, with enrollment rising above 2,500 until Anclote High opened in 2010, taking nearly 600 students with it. Even then, some of the Mitchell families fought the move.

Browning tried to reassure Tuesday's crowd that their views will be heard and considered as the latest round of planning for Mitchell moves forward.

"This process is in fact transparent, but we have to have information to communicate," Browning said. "The only thing that is certain right now is that we are going to have discussions regarding the rezoning of Mitchell High School. … No decision has been made, no lines have been drawn."

The parents who showed up Tuesday sounded dubious.

They contended that county and school district leaders know where homes will be built, and where schools are needed. As a result, all the talk of moving families out of their current schools to accommodate new residents made little sense to them.

"We are watching closely," said David Davis of New Port Richey. "Your existing constituents should be your top priority."

They called for transparency and open communication as the effort proceeds. Some also maintained that new boundaries only move problems from one school to another, calling for more schools to be built sooner than planned.

Until that time arises, though, the parents pressed the board to keep their community intact — a common refrain among growing subdivisions and neighborhoods faced with school splits.

"What you are hearing today is a community that is already partnering and does not want to be divided," said Sherri Paules, whose Oak Ridge community successfully fought being sent to Anclote High in 2010. "If your Number 1 priority is students. Guess what? Our Number 1 priority is students, too."

If push comes to shove, some said, they just want enough time to find other schools with "good students and good teachers."

"If this rezoning takes place … we will be forced to move because, unfortunately, there aren't great schools everywhere in the state of Florida," said Jennifer Wilson, who told the board she moved to the zone from New Hampshire about a year ago.

The discussion concerned United School Employees of Pasco president Kenny Blankenship, who took pains to tell the group that all of Pasco's schools have strong teachers working hard for children.

"We need to work hard, and I know we do here in Pasco County, to provide a Class-A education for all our children," Blankenship said. "It's just the fact that their living conditions have a greater impact on them than what our teachers can overcome in the classroom."

The school district plans to include two parents from each potentially affected school on its rezoning committees. Those committees are expected to present recommendations to the board so the board can make its final decision by Feb. 1.

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