Parents' challenges to Pasco school rezoning decisions to be heard next week

When it comes to rezoning her Country Walk neighborhood to different schools, Larondar Stone doesn't worry too much about her freshman daughter, Niah.5 Months Ago4 Months Ago4 Months AgoNiah is an advanced student, Stone said, and she's survived moves in...

Parents' challenges to Pasco school rezoning decisions to be heard next week

When it comes to rezoning her Country Walk neighborhood to different schools, Larondar Stone doesn't worry too much about her freshman daughter, Niah.

5 Months Ago

4 Months Ago

4 Months Ago

Niah is an advanced student, Stone said, and she's survived moves in the past.

What troubles Stone more is the way the Pasco County School District approached its Jan. 17 rezoning decision.

Officials set forth guidelines but didn't follow them, she said. They spoke of reaching conclusions based on numbers the public never saw, she added. Some advisory committee members appear to have discussed issues privately, too, Stone alleged.

Many upset residents want the district to act correctly, fairly and in the open, said Stone, who along with other Wesley Chapel parents has sued the School Board.

A state Division of Administrative Hearings officer is scheduled to hear the procedural challenges in the west-side case Monday and Tuesday, and later in March in the east-side case. A Circuit Court judge meanwhile has set a hearing on the open meetings complaint in June.

Time is of the essence for district leaders, who note that the result could affect planning for fall classes. Without a court order, they are proceeding as if their decision is valid.

The parents don't share the district's concerns, though.

"We are in this fight because you said there was a process, and then you overturned it," Stone said. "We want the judge to tell them to redo it."

Different results would be nice, too, she added.

It almost goes without saying that affected parents and students dislike when a school board redraws its attendance maps, especially when a brand new school isn't involved. They protest and plead for less disruptive alternatives, hoping board members will find an alternative solution to campus crowding, an increasingly common problem in growing districts like Pasco.

Rare, though, is a lawsuit aimed at undoing the board's action. That effort can prove costly — Pasco parents are accepting donations in addition to holding garage sales to cover legal fees — and difficult, as state law counts "assign students to schools" as one of a board's seven general powers.

A separate section in law states school boards "must consider" redrawing attendance zones to meet constitutional class size mandates. Such provisions appear to give a board wide leeway to revise school boundaries.

The outcome could boil down a judge's determination of whether the School Board followed all of the steps required in law when setting a rule, and if that law even applies.

Robert Stines, the lawyer representing east-side and west-side Pasco parents, is relying on the state's government rule-making law, which requires such things as adequate time for affected parties to present arguments and evidence. He has claimed the district did not meet all aspects of the mandate.

"It is part of the rule-making process," Stines said of school rezoning. "My clients want a fair process, a fair plan. If the process is fair, I don't think anyone can complain about the plan."

Such claims arise more commonly when companies protest bid awards, said Leonard Dietzen, a school law attorney with the Tallahassee office of Rumberger Kirk and Caldwell. If a judge rules for the complainant, he said, the district can be required to redo its work.

"Not a lot of this goes on," Dietzen said. "It sounds like someone got hold of every single paragraph (of the law), and they're trying to find enough deficiencies to undo it."

Stines and several of the complaining parents observed that superintendent Kurt Browning publicly called the district's rezoning process "flawed." That statement alone should raise red flags, suggested Stines, who has offered settlement proposals the district has not yet accepted.

Browning has floated some ideas of how to improve rezoning efforts, but only for the future. Stone and others questioned the wait, saying if the process needs fixing, it should be done before imposing its outcome on them.

The accusations that the school district didn't meet all of the advertisement, public hearing and related rule-making requirements only matter if the hearing officer agrees that drawing attendance zones is in fact rule making.

A Florida Department of Education spokeswoman said the state views rezoning as falling under the law. Some districts largely comply. But many others do not.

Hillsborough County, for example, does not use advisory committees and does not hold multiple formal public hearings before adopting new school boundaries, spokeswoman Tanya Arja said. Its decisions, which parents have questioned but never challenged legally, stem from maps drawn by district planners and revised after input from residents.

Staffers then bring a proposal to the School Board as a regular agenda item.

If that model is acceptable, it suggests the rule-making statutes need not apply.

In a filing with the state Division of Administrative Hearings, Pasco School Board attorney Dennis Alfonso doesn't go quite that far.

However, he writes, the district "substantially complied" with the provisions. He lists the multiple public forums for residents to hear deliberations and to speak, as well as the opportunities for anyone to communicate with the district in the months leading to the formal hearings.

Many of the complaining parents spoke at hearings and sent detailed emails to officials.

Information such as maps and meeting minutes also was available on district websites, Alfonso wrote. The district, he contended, is confident "the Petitioners will be unable to prevail upon the merits of this case."

Separately, the families also have alleged that the district's parent advisory committees violated the state open meetings law.

That complaint is set to go to Circuit Court in June. It could prove more troublesome for the district, experts said.

Browning asked the committees to review boundary proposals and suggest action. Officials warned the committee members not to discuss business with one another outside their meetings.

Yet Facebook comments indicate that some members had private conversations with others.

If the court were to determine a violation occurred, any action taken afterward could be voided, said Barbara Petersen, executive director of the Florida First Amendment Foundation.

"That's pretty much the reason for the Sunshine Law, for citizens to take action," Petersen said. "The School Board most likely did all of this in good faith. But if there's a hiccup and somebody doesn't like what you did, there could be problems."

The School Board has not yet responded to these allegations.

Both lines of attack could end up setting the bright line for how school districts throughout Florida revise attendance zones in the future. Parents making the case are fine with that.

In the past, too many sat back and accepted whatever zones emerged, said Julie Nodine, one of the east Pasco plaintiffs.

"These communities have to put their foot down," Nodine said, "because these superintendents and school boards are doing what they want to do."

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

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