tampabay.com

School zoning plan irks parents

They worry about longer travel time, kids losing friends, and future enrollment decline.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published February 7, 2007


LAND O'LAKES - In opening five new schools come August, the Pasco County School Board has to move about 3,600 children from one school to another.

Board member Allen Altman marveled Tuesday that, given the magnitude of the task, fewer than 20 parents came to complain at the board's first review of the boundary proposals. Of those, the most came from two affected communities - Ivy Lake Estates and Meadow Pointe II.

The parents from those neighborhoods argued passionately against plans to reassign their children to Charles Rushe Middle/Sunlake High and Double Branch Elementary, respectively. They got few promises, but found some willingness among district leaders to continue listening and, maybe, reconsidering before the final vote.

"We are growing. It is going to impact the central part of our county more than any other part," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said, cautioning the parents not to expect too much. "I can't promise we're going to come up with solutions ... but we'll do the best we can."

For the Meadow Pointe II parents, the board and Fiorentino agreed to reconvene a boundary committee to look at who will transfer from Sand Pine to Double Branch elementary. Clare Early, speaking for the group, contended that no one from the subdivision was invited to take part in the initial discussions.

For Ivy Lake Estates, Fiorentino suggested that school choice might be the best option for students who prefer not to attend Rushe or Sunlake.

What were their concerns?

Ivy Lake Estates parents did not like that their children will attend Longleaf Elementary and then, after making friends there, be split from every other community west of the Suncoast Parkway to go to Rushe Middle and Sunlake High.

It's unfair to the kids, said parent Thomas Moran, who will have two children in high school. "It's going to destroy them not to have each other to lean on."

If they have to move, he suggested that the district might use a boundary that includes a wider swath of communities assigned to Seven Springs Middle, from Gunn Highway eastward. That way, at least more students would be moving together, keeping more friendships intact.

Randy Ponce de Leon, another parent from the neighborhood, said he wondered whether the school district would award choice requests that are not for hardships. He suggested that Ivy Lake Estates did not need to be rezoned, because he calculated that its current schools - Seven Springs and Mitchell High - would soon see their enrollments decline.

The district planning office, however, has projected that Mitchell especially will have severe crowding for quite some time. Next year, the school is expected to have 541 more students than permanent seats.

The Meadow Pointe II parents said just two neighborhoods within their subdivision are being asked to switch from Sand Pine to Double Branch.

That could limit the amount of time neighborhood kids could spend together, Early said. "We ask that you respect the integrity of our community, Meadow Pointe II."

Early talked about committee representation and the longer commute to the new school. Families can get to Sand Pine on neighborhood roads, she said, while it will take an extra 20 minutes to get to Double Branch.

"What that is going to do is take away precious family time," Early said.

She asked the board to keep them in Sand Pine until a closer new school opens in the area. That's maybe three years away.

But Sand Pine is at 191 percent of its capacity this year. Without the Meadow Pointe II kids, it would drop to 123 percent. With them, 158 percent.

Early said the parents didn't mind. But Fiorentino was not thrilled with the notion of keeping the school so crowded.

"Keeping a school at 158 percent is not the answer," the superintendent said. "We need to keep in mind what we're doing to our students, to our teachers."

Board attorney Dennis Alfonso also warned that the board's action will have implications as it moves forward with concurrency planning, where new development could hinge on the availability of student seats.

The board tentatively approved the new boundaries for Double Branch, New River and Gulf Trace elementary schools, Rushe Middle and Sunlake High. The final vote is slated for Feb. 20.

Board vice chairwoman Kathryn Starkey looked for a silver lining. "What's important is that parents project a positive attitude to their kids that change is not bad," she said.

Of course, said Tracy Spataro, a Meadow Pointe II mom.

"If they say no," she said, "then we'll group together and do our best for the new school."

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com 813 909-4614 or toll-free 1-800-333-7505 ext. 4614. Check out our education blog, The Gradebook, at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.