Westchase's balanced attack
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 26, 2006
They have a Web site. They have a logo. They even have a marketing representative.
They're Westchase United, the ad hoc group of parents angling to prevent their 144 children from taking part in the school district's proposed attendance boundary shift for much of western Hillsborough County.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise, but the master-planned subdivision of nearly 4,000 homes has gone from zero to zooming in its attempt to protect what neighbors consider the unity of their community.
And not just the few neighborhoods along Countryway Boulevard that would be affected by a move from Westchase to Lowry elementary next fall. People from throughout Westchase are swamping the School Board with e-mails and calls, preparing to overflow the public meeting on the topic scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
"If we don't have a packed house, how are we going to prove we are a single community?" says Mark Connolly, the group's organizer and a father of two school-aged kids.
Connolly knows a few things about how to deal with government. When not agitating for his family, he's one of two lawyers who represents the Temple Terrace City Council, among other government agencies.
One of the messages that comes across on the Web site, www.west chaseunited.com, and through interviews, is the organization's desire to keep things positive. The message can't be about home values, Connolly says, and it can't be about emotions. It has to be logical, persuasive and friendly.
"It's about our community," he says. "It's about our kids."
The group isn't leaving any stone unturned, though. It has an attorney looking into the agreement that handed Westchase Elementary from the developer to the school district, in case there are any restrictions on its use that might favor the subdivision's parents.
And it's not above getting kids involved. The Web site urges children to write letters to School Board members and to the neighborhood newsletter, asking to stay at Westchase Elementary.
Connolly acknowledges that using children in the effort could look, well, like using kids. Having them speak at a public meeting would be counterproductive, he says. But he looks to his own family for the lead. His son Scott has been listening to all the talk and can't help but notice how much effort his parents are putting into the issue.
"If my son wants to come to the meeting and hold a sign outside saying, 'Please let me stay at Westchase,' I don't have a problem with that," he says.
Many people living just outside Westchase do have a problem with Westchase's attempts to stay out of the school boundary fray, though. They think that their fortunes rise and fall with the fate of their larger neighbor, and they've made that clear in their own e-mails to the School Board.
Community chat rooms are also ablaze with a similar message, often in not-so-nice terms.
Many parents suggest that the venom should be directed elsewhere, like toward the governments that allow new homes to rise without schools to serve the children, perhaps.
Here's hoping that cooler heads prevail.
Westchase is not alone in its fight to save its school boundaries, of course. Several northwest schools are slated to lose students, most dramatically Dickenson Elementary on Kelly Road in Town 'N Country.
Parents there have seen the cohesion and rapid response in Westchase, though, and they're modeling their efforts after Westchase United. If anything, Connolly says, the Dickenson parents are better organized and have a better plan than does Westchase.
Perhaps that's because they have more to lose. The school district has recommended closing Dickenson as an elementary school and reopening it with programs for students who have problems learning in a regular school environment.
So far, the families have mounted a Save Our School petition drive, protested in front of their school and planned a major community meeting with all sorts of elected officials. Maybe most important, they've reached out to Westchase and other affected communities.
Carrie Bowcock, one of the main organizers, speculates that the school district probably didn't figure on a fight from her working-class community. That was a wrong thought, says Bowcock, who lives just off the Dickenson campus and sends her daughter Brienna there.
"One parent, one vote can make a difference," she says. "I take this very personally."
School district officials have scheduled a meeting for the Town 'N Country area for 6:30 p.m. April 3 at Webb Middle School.
If the elementary boundary changes weren't enough, many northwest parents also face a high school change that has many up in arms.
Students zoned for Alonso and Leto high schools who want to enroll in the college-bound International Baccalaureate program traditionally have attended Hillsborough High School, near Interstate 275 just south of Hillsborough Avenue.
It's not a short trip, maybe 25 minutes from the mall in Citrus Park in good traffic.
Well, the drive is about to get longer.
Leto and Alonso IB kids are slated to attend Robinson High School, which is closer to MacDill Air Force Base than anything else. Robinson's IB program opens in the fall.
Some traditional PTA stalwarts who usually would be hip deep in the elementary boundary debate instead are putting all their energy into keeping their kids at Hillsborough High.
School Board officials, who added IB to Robinson in part to reduce the commute for students from the southeastern corner of the county to King High in Temple Terrace, have yet to weigh in.