Hillsborough's Griffin: Plant case proves athletics eligibiliy system needs work
Children are being hurt by Hillsborough County's school athletics eligibility system, School Board Chairwoman April Griffin said Tuesday.
Rules are enforced inconsistently, investigations are undertaken by people who aren't trained and the time of highly paid staff is being wasted in needless hearings.
"We need to be clear and concise and consistent in our policies," Griffin told the board during what was billed as a discussion of school residency requirements.
It started out that way.
But Griffin also sought to explain her decision to stand up for the Mezrah family, whose daughter was deemed ineligible to play tennis for Plant High School because of the family's multiple homes.
Mike Mezrah, the player's father, sat in the audience throughout the hour-long discussion.
Griffin said she had never taken an interest in school sports until after the Armwood High School eligibility scandal of 2012. Shortly after, the district adopted a new policy for transfer students, which established the board as a sort of court of appeal after students are told they must sit out a year.
The Mezrah case came to her attention, she said, and a lot of things did not make sense.
The family had been allowed to send their children to south Tampa elementary and middle schools without a problem even though they also owned property in Palm River, she said. Three administrators and attorney Tom Gonzalez attended a Florida High School Athletics Association hearing about the case in Bradenton. Conflicting information was given about statements taken from neighbors that would establish how often the family slept in south Tampa.
"There are all kinds of discrepancies that have taken place," she said.
And a second investigation was launched after Griffin complained about the case to Superintendent MaryEllen Elia.
Elia, for her part, said she took a keen interest in the case and even visited the south Tampa property herself.
In the end, she said, she told the family they could send their children to Plant. But she also told them that if someone reported that the family was not sleeping in the south Tampa home, the distict would investigate. And, based on the FHSAA ruling earlier in the year, their daughter would not be able to play tennis until the following school year.
The student is now taking all her courses online, Mezrah said.
The conversation became contentious at times, with member Carol Kurdell declaring the board had too much other business to take care of. "I'm tired of talking about this," she said.
"I'm tired of talking about it too," Griffin said. "But I'm not done."
"I'm sure," Kurdell said.
Member Doretha Edgecomb also seemed to lose patience. "I have only heard of one case today," she said. "I don't see a critical mass that says we ought to do things differently."
Griffin insisted the case is an illustration of flaws in the system. Specifically, school board policy gives examples of documentation a family can produce to establish residency, such as utility bills and homestead exemptions. But it does not specify how many nights in a week they must sleep at a particular home, which is an issue for the FHSAA.
Griffin also defended herself against talk that she acted out of friendship with the Mezrah family.
"I met this family through this situation," she said. "I looked at it and I felt that it was consistent and unfair."