Chris Williams wasn’t quite sure what to expect on Oct. 7 at the public workshop for Pasco County’s new school boundaries expected to go into effect for the 2020-21 school year.
The director of planning services for the Pasco County School Board said that in the three weeks prior to the meeting, there had surprisingly been only 35 online inquiries about the new boundaries, so he wondered if parents were waiting to address their concerns in person.
Would the same large crowds from the contentious, lawsuit-laden 2016 rezoning meetings come streaming through the doors of the Wiregrass Ranch High (WRH) gymnasium? Would an angry mob be on hand to confront county planners who were there to answer questions? Would they be carrying pitchforks?
The answers? No, no and no.
It was, in fact, a surprisingly muted showing of roughly 50 parents over three hours, the energy muzzled by the emptiness of the high school’s large gymnasium.
“Based on some feedback, I expected more,” Williams said. “But, I didn’t expect this.”
There were 12 tables set up, with District staff manning many of them to answer questions about the new school zones, which will have the greatest effect on students living in Seven Oaks.
While current WRH juniors and John Long Middle School seventh graders will be allowed to stay next year to finish at the schools where they started, most everyone else in Seven Oaks is headed to Cypress Creek High and Cypress Creek Middle, if the boundaries are approved, as expected.
When Mica and David Rice decided to relocate from Orange County in New York to Tampa Bay, they say that the right school for their son, an incoming freshman, played the biggest role.
In the summer of 2018, after strongly considering Steinbrenner High in Lutz, the Rices made what they thought was the right decision — they chose WRH, and bought a home in Seven Oaks.
Two weeks after closing on their new home, Mica found out her son’s stay at WRH was likely to be a short one, as the Seven Oaks community would in the crosshairs of rezoning in 2019.
“I saw it on Facebook, and I was shocked,” Mica says. “We did a year’s worth of research before deciding to move here, and did not know.”
The Rices were clearly disappointed that their son will not only have to attend a new school, but one further away from home. Mika says her 7-minute ride to school will now be a 20-minute ride.
“We don’t want to leave (Wiregrass Ranch),” she says.
However, there is little choice. Most of the parents who visited the public workshop seemed disappointed but resigned to the fact their children — whether at WRH or Long — would be attending Cypress Creek High and/or the new Cypress Creek Middle School, which is currently under construction, next year.
“I’m getting pushback, but not a lot of it,” Williams said. “The impression is that certainly people are not happy, but they are kind of resigned to the fact. Most knew this day was coming.”
To drive that point home, Williams came armed with a newspaper article from 2016, where Pasco School Superintendent Kurt Browning specifically told the Seven Oaks community that while they were spared in the 2016 rezoning, they likely would be moving the next time around.
Cypress Creek High principal Caryn Hetzler-Nettle and new Cypress Creek Middle School principal Timothy Light (see story, pg. 30) had a table at the public forum with the hopes of assuaging any of the concerns of parents whose kids would be attending their schools next year.
Hetzler-Nettles said the process — which eliminated committees arguing over where to draw the boundaries and let the county planners handle it this time around — also seemed to do away with most of the tension from the 2016 process.
Also, the fear of the unknown has been eliminated. In 2016, students were rezoned for schools that didn’t yet exist.
“It’s night and day,” Hetzler-Nettles said. “Now that we’re established and have a brand and a vibe out there, it’s been much easier.”
According to 2018-19 data, Wiregrass Ranch High was at 136 percent of its capacity.
By shrinking the zone and reassigning students who live in Seven Oaks, roughly 27 percent of the student body (or 600 or so students) will head off to Cypress Creek High, which today is at only 50 percent of its capacity of 2,090 students.
Long was at 116 percent of its capacity in 2018-19, but with nearly 450 students being rezoned for Cypress Creek Middle School, it could be at 90 percent next school year.
Williams said county-wide, Pasco is only at 90-percent capacity in all of its schools, but Wesley Chapel’s schools are continuously over capacity, due to the burgeoning development.
While rezoning Seven Oaks helped Williams meet his directive, he said the county also considered including Northwood in the rezoning, but instead chose to make some minor adjustments elsewhere.
Most of the concerns Williams heard at the public forum revolved around students being able to finish at the same school at which they had started, transportation and what to do about siblings.
Williams explained that siblings of any graduating seniors will have to attend their new school, but any students currently attending Wiregrass Ranch (or Long, since it’s considered the same campus) who are siblings of a junior can likely stay but will have to apply for choice.
However, once those WRH juniors graduate in 2021, their younger siblings will have to attend the school for which they are zoned.
Also, students in any academies only offered at Wiregrass Ranch (medical, hospitality) have to apply for choice but should get to stay. Those in the business academy, however, will have to go to Cypress Creek if zoned for it, because Cypress Creek also has a business academy.
The last opportunity for the public to have its say come son Tuesday, November 5, when the School Board will host a public hearing on the proposed boundaries. The final vote is scheduled for Tuesday, November 19.