Pasco County School Board gets earful over school choice miscues

Some east-county parents said the district wasn’t making good on its promises.
Crews are building a new 1,500-student middle school on the Cypress Creek Middle-High campus in Wesley Chapel. The Pasco County School Board has redrawn attendance zones to fill the buildings. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times]
Crews are building a new 1,500-student middle school on the Cypress Creek Middle-High campus in Wesley Chapel. The Pasco County School Board has redrawn attendance zones to fill the buildings. [Jeffrey S. Solochek | Times] [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK ]
Published Feb. 10, 2020|Updated Feb. 10, 2020

Many Seven Oaks parents took no pleasure in the School Board’s November decision to reassign their children to different middle and high schools beginning next fall.

If the board offered any consolation, it was that rising juniors and seniors would be guaranteed a spot in their current school — Wiregrass Ranch High — through graduation. Seniors could get a bus ride, and juniors would have to provide their own transportation.

When school choice notifications came out beginning Feb. 4, however, several parents quickly grew incensed as they learned their children were placed on a waiting list for a seat the school, which otherwise was frozen because of continued crowding. That included not only some of the juniors and seniors, but also some students who were told they could complete specialty programs at Wiregrass Ranch if Cypress Creek — their newly assigned school — did not have a similar program.

Board members received a variety of emails, ranging from the parents seeking answers to those accusing board members of mistreating students.

The correspondence sent the district into action to determine what had happened. It turned out to be a combination of district error and parent missteps.

On the parents’ side, the district told them they did not need to apply for school choice for rising juniors and seniors. All they needed to do was send a note verifying that they would remain and, in the case of the juniors, they would get to school on their own.

Many applied anyway, though, and the district tracking software did not match the letters of intent to the choice requests.

“The system automatically put them on the wait list,” said School Board chairwoman Colleen Beaudoin.

Confusion ensued. Staff then worked to handle those mixed messages, and assure families that their children were enrolled and not on a waiting list. The same was true for students in unique programs, and also for sibling priorities, as possible, Beaudoin said.

“Where it was things we said would happen, we fixed those,” Beaudoin said.

Some complaints came from parents whose children were rising sophomores and wanted to remain at Wiregrass Ranch. If they didn’t fall into any of the other categories, the board made no assurances of a seat through choice, though.

“They will have to file an appeal,” Beaudoin said.

TEACHER RAISES: As state lawmakers consider plans to increase teacher pay, Pasco County school district officials have begun assessing how the options would impact their nearly 5,500 faculty members.

The House plan appears likely to leave more Pasco teachers empty handed than the Senate version — even though the House plan on its face includes more money.

In the House proposal, Pasco would receive an estimated $12.4 million to increase the base salary, and another $3.7 million for others already above the minimum.

According to district assistant superintendent Kevin Shibley, the amount would allow Pasco to boost its minimum teacher wage to $46,250, while also taking into consideration related taxes and other contributions. Some teachers’ raises would approach 15 percent.

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With the remaining amount, the district could afford a 3.5 percent raise for the others. That would include a smaller percentage for those teachers who got a boost to the $46,250, but for whom the raise was less than 3.5 percent.

In all, 4,513 educators would get a raise of some sort. But 916 would be left out, because they are not assigned as “classroom teachers,” which the House would require.

The Senate approach would provide less money to Pasco — $9.6 million that would help boost the bottom pay rate to $45,450, and another $2.4 million that would provide a 1.3 percent raise to all other instructional employees.

Just 30 adult education teachers would not be included, according to Shibley.

The state superintendents’ association has been gathering similar information from other districts, as well, so it can offer insights to lawmakers as they keep seeking consensus on the teacher pay issue.

COMMUNICATION MATTERS: Efforts to shutter Hudson Elementary and reassign its students continue on pace for school district officials charged with making it happen.

But many of the details remain lost on the families who will live with the changes.

One small example: Word of plans to house Northwest Elementary, where many Hudson students will be reassigned, at the Hudson campus while Northwest is renovated leaked into the community before a formal explanation could be offered.

School employees received the news before any district letters got sent, and some shared. The perhaps predictable outcome was confusion.

Board member Megan Harding, who represents the area, has asked superintendent Kurt Browning to prevent a repeat.

“I just want to avoid as much chaos as possible,” Harding wrote in an email.

Browning responded that his team is providing details as quickly as possible. But some of the information isn’t yet available. As soon as it is, he added, parents will be alerted.

Maybe that should be in the message, then, Harding suggested. Because the unanswered questions will come furiously, she said, and knowing the district intends to share what it knows might stem the tide.