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Latest argument: portables
The School Board adds to the brew whether portable classrooms should count.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 27, 2007
LAND O'LAKES - The County Commission and School Board have a Feb. 1 deadline to work out a plan that ensures Pasco has enough school seats for the children who come from future home developments.
Every time the staff comes close to an agreement, though, a new wrinkle emerges that causes a divide.
First, it was concerns about how the school district buys land for construction. Next, it was a dispute over who pays for road improvements outside new schools. Neither of those issues, which some would argue have little to do with the matter at hand, are completely resolved.
But now there's a new area to argue over - portable classrooms, and whether they should count when evaluating a school's capacity.
The county attorney's office says they should.
In an Oct. 22 memo to commissioners, the county's top lawyers suggest that, when counting the number of available seats in each school, portable classrooms should be part of the equation. They go so far as to accuse the school district of hiding capacity by recommending levels of service without including portables.
If portables are not counted, senior assistant county attorney Elizabeth Blair wrote, the school district could create a de facto moratorium on future home construction in certain areas.
Not surprisingly, school district officials reject the county attorney's line of reasoning.
In an memo to the School Board on Wednesday, assistant superintendent Ray Gadd called the county's analysis "unexpected, misguided and detrimental to the education of children." As for the notion that the district is hiding its true capacity, Gadd offered two words: "absolute nonsense."
Board chairwoman Marge Whaley agreed.
"The state punishes us for portables, and they want us to get rid of them. That is the goal, and it's our goal as well," Whaley said. "Portables are named portables because they're moved around for situations you can't avoid. They are not in our plans for permanent schools."
Some county commissioners took a similar position.
Commissioner Pat Mulieri, a retired college professor, said teaching in portables "is not pleasant," and she did not expect many parents would want their children stuck in them with no end in sight. Including portables in the definition of school capacity would make their removal less likely, Mulieri said.
"It's important to look at how we can meet concurrency standards, but I don't think portables should be in the mix," she said.
Commission chairwoman Ann Hildebrand equated including portables in the classroom count to "giving them a key to have portables forever."
"I would prefer that they don't have them," Hildebrand said, noting that voters supported an increased sales tax specifically to build new schools to replace portables.
Yet she wondered how the school district, which continues to see enrollment rise, can afford to eliminate all the portables. She wasn't certain how the issue of capacity and concurrency would play out, so the agreement doesn't halt development in its tracks.
One thing was certain to Hildebrand, though: It's time to make some decisions.
"My concern is that we're not there yet, and we have time slipping away from us pretty quickly," she said. "Our staffs have had the back and forth. Now it's going to be between the 10 elected officials."
Whaley suggested that the two boards might want to tell their lawyers to stop talking, to give themselves some time to hash out the issues.
"As 10 adults we should be able to settle this," she said. "We're all concerned about kids, and we need to reach common ground here."
Board member Frank Parker had his doubts. If county leaders want to include portables in the level of service, even for a temporary time frame, they're out of sync with the state Department of Education, making it hard to agree, he said.
Further, Parker said, the county staff keeps changing the tone of the discussion.
"I don't think it looks promising to this point," he said. "It's kind of hard to hit a moving target. ... We're going backward very rapidly and the clock is ticking. We have to sit down face to face."
That joint meeting is scheduled for 10 a.m. Tuesday.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or 813 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.