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West-side rezoning plans continue to vex parents, school district leaders

In announcing plans to again redraw attendance zones for west-side Pasco County middle and high schools, superintendent Kurt Browning said he did not plan to "reset" school choice.

Students attending schools through the district’s open-enrollment program would not have to reapply, he said. They could just stay, even as children who lived in the zones were drawn out.

The decision marked a break from long-standing district practice. And it promised to agitate families who considered it unfair that they would be forced out of their neighborhood schools while those who transfer in could stay.

After taking a closer look at the district’s Open Enrollment Plan, though, Browning has reversed course. The policy, updated on Feb. 6, states that students attending a school of choice would have to reapply if that school is "impacted by boundary changes, and the parents want their child to remain at the school the student was previously approved to attend through the school choice process."

"We are going to follow the controlled open-enrollment plan," Browning said. "It is policy."

Practically speaking, that means the district’s planning staff will go back to its proposed west-side rezoning maps and determine if the extent of its recommended changes should be modified after accounting for the more than 120 students attending Mitchell High through choice. It also would likely lead to a vast reduction in the numbers of students able to enter over-capacity schools through choice, something that the district was lenient about a year ago after it rezoned the area.

"We got loose with it last year because we wanted to keep everyone happy," Browning said. "There’s no more new choice coming into Mitchell next year."

Browning added that he also is taking a closer look at parent requests for more stringent address verification for students. Many parents have complained that families enroll in the more highly sought after west-side schools using bogus documents, and suggested if the district would crack down, enough students might be ousted for lying to avoid a rezoning.

Browning said he understood the argument, and his staff is looking into "what it is we can legally do to ensure that students attending our schools are living in those zones."

He cautioned, though, that hiring investigators could prove too costly an expense to implement, and that the district’s "hammer" to enforce the rules might not be as strong as people would like.

"If we said at the beginning of every school year, you have to do x and I’ve got 60 percent who do it and 40 percent who don’t, what do I do with the 40 percent?" he said, noting the district’s mandate to provide a free public education.

The idea of simply sending those children to schools with available seats "is not going to work," Browning said. "My guess is that parents are lying to stay in Mitchell. … But I cannot fix the whole idea that parents are going to be untruthful."

Soon after Browning’s announcement, a second group of parents dissatisfied with the rezoning effort filed a formal request for the School Board to "draw out" its process and to provide lower cost solutions to its crowding problems.

"We did not want to have to do this," the seven parents wrote to board members and key staff. They represented different potentially affected neighborhoods. "We had hoped that our concerns would be heard and that the District Staff would have been willing to work with us. We are regretfully left with no alternative."

About 100 parents showed up for a public workshop on March 12, and walked away feeling their views had not been heard.

Among their suggested alternatives are building new wings on existing schools, opening new schools on a faster time line, addressing verification to weed out children attending schools they are not assigned to, rezoning undeveloped subdivision areas to schools with available seats, and implementing double sessions at the most crowded schools.

They made their request using state rule-making law, which some parents argued the district did not appropriately follow a year ago when implementing changes — since voided by a county court over open-meeting violations. An administrative law judge found separately that the district’s procedures substantially complied with the law.

"There is no credible evidence that the proposed rule is capricious or that it was taken without thought or reason or irrationally," administrative law judge D.R. Alexander wrote.

School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso pointed to Alexander’s ruling, which has been appealed, as well as the state law in determining that the district will not alter its process for the parents.

"We’re not going to agree to a draw out," Alfonso said. "The time table remains the same. We had a workshop, we’re going to have a public hearing, and the board is going to do what they do."

He noted the law states an agency must suspend its rule-making process "if the agency determines that the rule-making proceeding is not adequate to protect the person’s interests."

District officials believe they have provided ample opportunity for interested parties to submit comments, alternative ideas and any documentation they wish the board to review, Alfonso said.

The board will take all those into consideration, he continued. But it is not required under law to engage in lengthy debate with the public, or to agree with everything it hears.

For now, at least, the plan remains for the board to hold a hearing on April 10 and vote on the final recommendation May 1.

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at [email protected] Follow @jeffsolochek.

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