TAMPA — Enforcement of the Hillsborough County School District’s participation policy for student transfers, a rule that makes those transferring to a high school other than their designated zoned school to sit out one calendar year before playing sports, is in limbo pending the outcome of an appeals court decision.
In February, Hillsborough Circuit Court Judge Bernard Silver ruled a pair of sisters fighting to play softball at Jefferson High should be allowed to participate while they await the outcome of their lawsuit against the school district. The sisters were initially ruled ineligible for the season and in the suit, claimed they should be able to play because they were enrolled at Jefferson the first day of school.
The school district has appealed the judge’s decision to the Second District Court of Appeals, claiming it has the authority to rule students ineligible.
“The only part that is an issue is that if (students) transfer and are there on opening day, they can play,” said attorney Tom Gonzalez, who represents the school district.
Peter Hobson, the attorney who represents the Fernandez family, said the school district’s policy contradicts state statute.
“What’s still up in the air is whether a school board or district can put participation rules in that contradict a rule of whether a student can be an athlete at the start of the school year,” Hobson said. “Is it state statute? Does it control eligibility and can a school board create policy that contradicts that statute?’’
The participation policy was the district’s reaction to the Armwood football program being investigated and eventually stripped of its 2011 Class 6A state championship, its state runner-up crown from 2010 and fined $12,743 by the Florida High School Athletic Association for the use of ineligible players.
“There are people out there who want kids to be able to go to whatever school they want to go to and do whatever they want to do, when they want to do it,” district athletic director Lanness Robinson said. “There are a group of people that feel that way, that there should be no restrictions for kids playing sports wherever they want to play.
“What they don’t understand is that fundamentally goes against a fair playing surface for all schools. The concept that every one has to follow the same rules and make it a level playing field, that’s being overlooked.”
Gonzalez said a decision on the appeal could take months. In the meantime, student transfers are still being reviewed, but not through the district’s Transferring Student-Athletes Participation Committee, where students could plead their right to play and prove eligibility. If student-athletes and their families objected to the TSAP committee appeal ruling, they could appeal to the district school board. The school board’s ruling was final.
Instead, athletic eligibility is being handled by the individual school, with oversight by Robinson. The students are still required to present the same documentation, which includes proof of residency. Some students who transfer are granted athletic participation for few exceptions, which include moving to a new residence or being reassigned by the school district.
Hobson said the district’s policy lacks an objective perspective.
“This level playing field concept, I understand it, but has this school board or FHSAA reached out to someone other than school board members for input?” he said. “They don’t look for answers outside their own group.”
Hobson suggested the district hire a consultant to evaluate its transfer policy, incorporate parents and hire a retired judge to oversee the first appeals.
Robinson said of the 700 appeal cases brought before the TSAP committee since the policy was implemented in the fall of 2012, 93 percent were approved.
“We feel we’ve done what’s best for student-athletes,” Robinson said. “If a judge makes that decision (to rule a student can participate if only enrolled by the opening day of school), I think they would hopefully see what has happened historically that this is an issue. We have to go with the wishes of the court.”