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  1. Education

Plans for new Cypress Creek Middle School placed on fast track

With approval of increased impact fees in hand, Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said he plans to "fast track" construction of a new middle school serving Wesley Chapel and surrounding areas.

"My hope is to get that up and open by 2019," Browning said of the school, which would rise on Old Pasco Road alongside Cypress Creek High, which currently is serving as both a middle and high school.

The School Board already has approved an architect for the project, potentially trimming the amount of time needed to ready the school by about six months. The site work to prepare the land was completed, as well, during construction of Cypress Creek.

The rise of a new school would require another attendance zone revision for the east Pasco area, where some residents fought hard over new boundaries put in place for this academic year.

Browning, who came under fire for his handling of the changes, said certain aspects of the next rezoning appear settled. Children currently assigned to Cypress Creek would not be moved, he said, and the bulk of crowding relief would come from John Long Middle.

He specifically mentioned the Seven Oaks subdivision as a target for reassignment, saying residents "know their neighborhood is going to be looked at."

The process for redrawing the maps, though, is likely to differ from the one that faced several legal challenges.

"I don't think the model is going to look the same," Browning said, adding that he hadn't settled on any specifics yet.

One likely outcome, though, could be the end of the parent and principal advisory committees that have served the district over time to guide the recommendations. Instead, Pasco might revise its method to look more like Hillsborough County's, where staffers design maps, collect public comments and then present proposals to the superintendent and School Board.

That model appears to meet the state rule-making law, which some parents insisted that Pasco follow.

An administrative law judge ruled that Pasco did follow that procedure properly. His ruling is under appeal.

"I don't want to cut out the public input," Browning said. "But I think the public involvement is going to be later in the process."

He suggested that, no matter the actual model, parents will continue to have ample opportunity to speak about their concerns, as well as submit written views. He also contended that, regardless of the process, people involved will come with a point of view.

SCHOOL NUMBERS: Early in the rezoning process, Browning said one of his goals in west Pasco was to fill vacant seats in schools that have sat under capacity. One key example was Anclote High, built for 1,651 but enrolling hundreds fewer.

To attract students without forcing them to attend, the district opened an advanced Cambridge program at Anclote, with the middle school component at Paul R. Smith Middle.

Paul R. Smith saw its enrollment jump by close to 150 students, from the fifth day of classes a year ago to that same day in 2017.

The same could not be said for Anclote High. Its numbers dipped by 126 students year to year, with a 56-person decline between the first and fifth days of this year.

Browning said part of the change was due to a shift of some students from Anclote to Gulf High this fall. But he also acknowledged that the Cambridge program had yet to prove the lure that officials had hoped.

Unlike Pasco High, which found early support when it debuted Cambridge, Anclote has not yet generated similar interest. Many families that had been slated to be rezoned out of Mitchell High used the district choice program to return to Mitchell, rather than look at Anclote.

The plan is to give the program more time, and perhaps to grow organically as middle school students rise through it.

"I want to give Cambridge an opportunity to develop," Browning said.

ANOTHER SALES TAX?: School Board members asked back in June for information about how a second sales tax supporting school construction might work.

Members of the county's impact fee advisory committee brought up the idea when considering all of the district's financial needs. The board did not discount it, even after commissioners rejected the concept of directly tying a sales tax referendum to the fee increase.

The district administration isn't hurrying to provide any details, though. And Browning is part of the reason why.

He said he wouldn't discount the idea, but also isn't keen on it.

"The voters have been extremely gracious with the Penny (for Pasco), and 45 percent of the penny is ours," he said. "We've been able to do a lot with it."

It's not enough money to do all of the district's projected construction work. But that doesn't mean the superintendent is ready and willing to ask for more.

"That will have to be a board conversation," he said — one that so far has not been scheduled.

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