Schools and county far apart

Still, the sides may be drawing nearer in the tussle over road improvements near schools.

By CHUIN-WEI YAP, Times Staff Writer
Published November 21, 2007

NEW PORT RICHEY - A top-level meeting between Pasco County and the school district Tuesday could not deliver an agreement on how to share road improvement costs around new schools.

But at least they now know that the gulf between them is exactly a quarter-mile wide.

With a state-imposed Feb. 1 deadline shadowing the talks, the two sides are trying to overcome a decades-old dispute on how much the district should pay for "off-site" work.

Before Tuesday's meeting, County Administrator John Gallagher had made a private overture to assistant schools superintendent Ray Gadd, suggesting the district pay for any improvement within a quarter-mile-radius - or 1,320 feet - of school sites.

"I've heard Ray say that you can't do 3 miles or 5 miles, and I agree," Gallagher said. "That's why I threw out a quarter-mile. Anything beyond that, I'll take care of it."

The school district has traditionally said state law doesn't let it pay for off-site work, though the district has relented in some cases, Gadd said.

But county attorneys say schools create traffic impact beyond their boundaries, and that other laws don't support the district's position. As lawyers on either side dug in, the talk drifted at times toward courtroom confrontation - a scenario that Hillsborough County is currently going through.

District officials at first rebuffed Gallagher.

They didn't want to be locked into paying to overhaul deficient roads which might not relate directly to the school's access. They wanted an assurance that school impact fees - a tax on new homes that helps schools pay to keep up with development - would increase from $4,356 currently to $9,930. A private-sector committee named Monday is supposed to recommend how much the increase should be.

But, after an urgent huddle during a five-minute break, Gadd returned with a counter-offer: an eighth-mile radius.

It became Gallagher's turn to say no. Turned out his consultants had recommended a quarter-mile radius.

The district inched toward conceding, but couldn't make the stretch to a quarter mile.

School officials wanted leeway to decide whether the type of road work the county requested was "reasonable."

"A quarter-mile looks very different at each site, and every site is going to have its own issues," said Kathryn Starkey, the School Board member who led the district delegation Tuesday.

District officials also want a top-level dispute resolution process written into the agreement.

"Which is what we have now," said County Attorney Robert Sumner.

The existing route of appealing to the County Commission often casts county staff in the politically unpopular position of threatening to throw out school sites.

Two hours after the meeting began, that was where the standoff rested.

The two delegations agreed to meet again on Dec. 11 for another round. District officials want a closer look at the quarter-mile option. County officials wanted an assurance the district would specify that its school impact fees would cover the improvements.

Toward the end of the meeting, as talk turned toward the possibility of letting the "pressing" issues go unresolved, Sumner's frustration spilled out.

"It's not pressing to me," he said.

Nervous laughter in the room - Sumner is set to retire next month.

He went on: "This matter was pressing to me eight years ago, when I was sitting in this room trying to resolve it. I thought today we were going to resolve it. ... It's not pressing to have it approved by Feb. 1. But I believe these issues need to be resolved."

Chuin-Wei Yap can be reached at 813909-4613 or cyap@sptimes.com.