Pasco County Superintendent of Schools Kurt Browning knew heading into a months-long school rezoning process in Wesley Chapel — which was going to move students to the new Cypress Creek Middle/High School on Old Pasco Rd., as well as relieve overcrowding elsewhere — that he was going to be facing some upset parents.
He expected a few emails, some phone calls, maybe even a jeer or two at some of the public meetings. What he didn’t expect, however, was the intensity of the vitriol directed his way. “I think the personal attacks are tough,” Browning says. “I’m a pretty thick-skinned kind of guy, but still, it’s hard to read.”
Browning doesn’t read a lot of the things written about him on Facebook, and when an email turns sour with profanity, he immediately discards it.
“I’m okay with harsh words, I’m okay with tough facts, and people being unhappy with me, I get that,’’ he says. “But when you start using profane language and start personally attacking me based on things that have nothing to do with rezoning, (that’s where I draw the line).”
In the Wesley Chapel process, Browning’s decision to step in and recommend Option 13 over Option 20, which was selected after months of meetings of the School Boundary Committee (SBC) as well as parents, has only intensified the hard feelings towards him.
“I have a hard time with (Option) 20, because it moves more students and it moves them multiple times,’’ Browning said.
How seriously are parents in Wesley Chapel taking the boundary process and Browning’s entry into it?
One emailer wrote, “May God have mercy on your souls.”
“The level to which it has escalated is surprising,’’ Browning says.
On Dec. 20, the School Board tentatively approved Option 13 for the 2017-18 school year, which moves students from Country Walk and parts of Meadow Pointe IV from Dr. John Long Middle School and Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH) to a zone where they will now attend Thomas E. Weightman Middle School and Wesley Chapel High (WCH).
On Tuesday, January 17, the last public hearing will be held at the county School District office before the final vote takes place.
Though once a seemingly smooth process, the shifting opinions and recommendations, as well as the high-running emotions of parents, has thrown it into disarray.
Originally, the School Boundary Committee (SBC) had selected Option 12. That triggered a large protest in the form of a parent’s town hall that drew more than 1,000 Wesley Chapel residents — many of them wearing anti-12 shirts and lobbying hard for Option 20, which rezoned all of Seven Oaks for Weightman and WCH but preserved the current zones for Union Park, Country Walk and Meadow Pointe III & IV.
On Dec. 2, the SBC ditched Option 12 and settled on a final recommendation of Option 20, setting off more fiery responses in Wesley Chapel, as we reported in our Dec. 16 issue.
“That’s when I came in and started looking with the staff at the number of times students would have to move,’’ Browning says, adding that he was concerned that, under Option 20, some students could end up rezoned three different times as the Wesley Chapel area continues to expand.
“That’s when I made the recommendation to the School Board that we go back to the middle ground and Option 13, which keeps Seven Oaks at Wiregrass Ranch,’’ Browning says. “But, the line has to go someplace.”
Browning’s decision to step into the process was met with still more anger from people. Many parents were incensed that after a long process involving a committee of school principals, parents and county administrators, Browning intervened and essentially overruled all of their work.
The Conspiracy Theories
Although they existed before, Browning’s involvement has only heightened the number of conspiracies floating around the boundary process, including one alleging special relationships between Browning and Pasco County commissioner Mike Moore, who lives in Seven Oaks and has children attending Pasco public schools.
“I’ve been accused of all kinds of things,’’ Browning says, adding that he has, “never had a private meeting or a private conversation with anyone from Seven Oaks, or Country Walk, or Union Park, or anywhere else when it comes to rezoning.”
Browning calls Moore a friend, but adds that they don’t socialize. He says he has discussed impact fees with the commissioner, because eventually the decision will come before the BCC, which Moore chairs, but nothing about rezoning.
Moore, whose wife Lauren works at WCH, said that any claims that he interfered with the process are ludicrous. “I have no problem sending my kids to any school in Wesley Chapel,’’ Moore says. “Other than that, I haven’t been involved at all.”
Browning says that he injected himself into the process only after the SBC changed their mind twice. He said he reached out to the District’s director of planning Chris Williams, and asked him to explain why the committee went from Option 12 to 20.
They met, looked over numbers and maps, and Browning says that he felt strongly that Option 13 met more of the goals of drawing new boundaries.
“I knew as soon as I made that decision, that there was going to be a lot of backlash to it,’’ Browning says. “I am very respectful of the committees that do the work for the District…very respectful of that process. But also, there’s a law out there that says the superintendent is responsible for the efficient operation of the school district. Efficiency is everything anymore because of the dollars that we get or don’t get from Tallahassee to operate a district as large as the one we operate.”
That efficiency includes keeping costs down. With the county already strapped for cash, moving school portables, which currently house the overflow of students at many schools, can leave a financial mark.
“Under my recommendation, Option 13, we don’t have to move as many portables as under 20,’’ Browning says. “That’s a huge factor. It costs us $30,000 a portable just to move them.”
Another consideration by Browning was ending the 10-day school periods WRH students have been operating on since 2015.
Option 13, Browning says, eases overcrowding at WRH, which is currently operating at 168 percent capacity, or 1,025 students over it’s original cap of 1,633.
“I will tell you, Wiregrass Ranch is not going to be on a 10-period day next year, or the next year,’’ Browning says. “We’ve got enough students out of Wiregrass Ranch this coming year, a drop of 450-500 kids, to get it off the 10-period day.”
The Impact Fee Solution?
The bigger problem for Browning and students in Wesley Chapel, however, is the rapid growth of the area. Put simply, there are too many students for the number of middle and high schools in Wesley Chapel, so building another one — a new middle school on the current Cypress Creek Middle/High School campus — is paramount.
But , Browning says the funds aren’t there for the likely cost of roughly $70-million. The School Board has decided to ask the Pasco Board of County Commissioners to double the county’s school impact fees, which are charged on newly built homes to pay for new classrooms, from the current $4,800 to $9,174 per single family home.
The impact fee started out as a $1,651 charge in 2001 and has been adjusted twice. It now stands at $4,800 per single-family home, and hasn’t changed since 2008. An attempt to lower that figure in 2011 was defeated by a 3-2 vote by the BCC.
“It needs to double,’’ Browning said, citing a recent study by the county’s consultants. “I’m saying we need the $9,000.”
Browning says there is no capital money to put into new school construction. The Penny for Pasco tax voters approved only allows that money to be spent for technology enhancements, renovations and remodeling. “So, we’re kind of hogtied a little bit,’’ Browning adds.
If doubled, the impact fees could generate another $125 million over the next 10 years for new schools, including the construction of Cypress Creek Middle School. The best-case scenario would mean a new school could be built in four years.
“If we are successful in getting the impact fees increased to the level that will generate enough dollars quickly enough, the first school that we will probably want to look at would be the new Cypress Creek Middle School,’’ Browning says. “And, what that will allow us to do is literally open up 1,000 seats at Cypress Creek Middle/High.”
That would trigger another rezoning, and students living in Seven Oaks would attend the new schools.
“I think Seven Oaks is put on notice that when we open that middle school, they’re going to be rezoned to Cypress Creek,” Browning says.
Rezoning is the nature of the beast in high development areas. Browning hears from a lot of out-of-state transplants who have never been through a rezoning process. He says many of them attended the same schools their parents and grandparents did.
“I tell them that’s because they lived in a neighborhood that was built out or not growing,’’ Browning says. “In Florida, when you look at the vast expanse of space, and Pasco County is right in the crosshairs of development, that’s (not going to happen).”
There are no easy answers, and no way to make everyone happy, Browning says. But the questions — he says he sees those every day as he drives from Meadow Pointe Blvd. to Little Rd. on the other side of the county — in the form of new rooftops.
“I jokingly tell people I drive that stretch of road with my eyes closed, because I don’t want to see all the rooftops, knowing there’s going to be kids under many of those rooftops. My question is, rhetorically, where am I going to put them?”
For more information about the rezoning process, visit Pasco.k12.fl.us/Planning/Rezoning/.