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  1. Florida Politics

Ten Pasco School Board candidates talk about contentious attendance zone changes

As Pasco County voters head to the polls Tuesday, three School Board races highlight the local choices before them.

The eventual winners of Districts 1, 3 and 5 face myriad issues that range from teacher pay raises to the future of charter schools. But perhaps none have generated as much interest as crowding and growth.

After a brief lull during the recession, Pasco's student enrollment began surging again. Even with new schools, the district could not keep pace with space.

The School Board tried to ease the crunch by redrawing attendance zones. The moves resulted in lawsuits, anxiety and continued crowding.

All 10 candidates have said how they'd deal with the situation, which is unlikely to find quick resolution.

District 1 incumbent Allen Altman said the board has done the best it can, given realities.

Because of funding rules, the district can't create more student seats until after it needs them, Altman noted. Yet the board faces demands to ease crowding in ways that don't affect anyone personally.

Parents bring in ideas, Altman said, and the board attempts to balance them with what is most likely to work for the district as a whole. Many people have likened that to not listening.

"I can assure you with 100 percent confidence that we have vetted every proposal and listened to every person," he said.

His opponents challenged the effort, saying the board lacked adequate planning and communication.

"If you communicate what is going on, why it is going on and what your solution is, and you get their input ... then you will get a much better response," challenger Brian Staver said.

He agreed that no single decision can gain full support. But he suggested the board did a mediocre job of trying to get buy-in.

Staver called for more temporary solutions, such as expanding the use of virtual courses, leasing unused office or retail space and working more closely with contractors to provide land for schools.

"We need to revisit the philosophy of 'don't build it until they're here,'" Staver added.

Challenger Kenny Mathis agreed that the board needs to better communicate its plans. He suggested the district craft rezoning maps in advance, with phased transitions of students so they can complete the highest grade level at their current campus.

If schools don't immediately fill, Mathis said, the district should add programs to lure people. To speed the process of gaining new space, he recommended requiring developers to help pay for and build new schools.

"They're making millions," he said, "and they're over-flooding our schools."

The debate for the District 3 seat takes on the same tone, with incumbent Cynthia Armstrong defending the board's role against displeasure from two challengers.

"I always have to remind myself as a School Board member that I represent the entire county," she said, "so it's important to look at the big picture."

Like Altman, Armstrong said the board has tried to ensure a positive environment for all students. Many times, rezoning takes them to new schools, and complaints are fewer.

When you're not opening a new school, she said, the decisions are more difficult. But it's also difficult to justify leaving open spaces in existing schools — even when families complain about reassignments, she said.

Armstrong backed the idea of more magnet programs to shift enrollment without rezoning. She did not support allowing students to remain in their current schools through the highest grade level, suggesting it could be too costly.

Challenger Heide Janshon argued the board should have delayed action until it had a better long-term resolution that filled open seats and eased crowding.

She said the board failed to listen to good ideas from the public, and said she would not blame others to make an unpopular decision. Student needs must come first, she said, backing the idea of allowing students to complete their highest grade level in their school.

"So many times we have heard them say rezoning is harder on the parents than it is on the children," Janshon said. "No. We can't relate."

Challenger Meghan Hamer said she also liked the idea of allowing students to finish in their schools before rezoning.

She said the board needed to listen more closely to community input, as well.

Student voices are key, Hamer said. "We under-value their opinion. Do they want to stay at their school?"

The board should take that into consideration, she said.

The four District 5 aspirants shared the view that the board must do more to involve community members in any decision.

An administrative law judge found that the board followed rule-making law in holding hearings and taking testimony.

But the candidates, like those in the other races, contended that was not enough.

Candidate Kassie Hutchinson said she believed the board should not act until it received a set number, or quota, of community responses, "until we know we are hearing their views."

She suggested one year is too short to plan — particularly when everyone knows growth and new schools are coming.

Hutchinson also questioned the district's practice of placing schools near new developments, suggesting it creates inequities.

Hopeful Megan Harding criticized government leaders for not properly preparing for growth, but said in the end she "totally understands" why the board voted as it did.

It just needs to better represent students and families, she said. "It's important we remember our way."

Candidate Tara O'Connor agreed that residents have grown skeptical of the board. She said part of the problem is that board meeting consent agendas have many items — not necessarily related to zones — and get little discussion.

The board should be more transparent and welcoming, she said, and that might help gain support.

O'Connor added that developers should face a greater burden to provide schools. And she agreed that students should not be punished because of adult actions.

"If they're there, they should be allowed to finish," she said, "Let's face it, for many students, they're going to go where the bus takes them."

Candidate Mike Aday said he did not understand why the district would not try to maximize the use of Krinn Technical High, which opened this year with 548 students and has lots of available seats.

That would be one way to ease crowding in some schools without forcing a move, he said, although he noted that better busing would be needed.

He also said the board needs to be more responsive when people bring in concerns. Too often, the board does not speak after a parent pours out his or her heart, Aday said, and that creates a disconnect.

"A lot of times, people just want to know they are valued," Aday said, and if they feel part of a solution, they won't always fight it as much.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.