BROOKSVILLE — In the face of a lawsuit, the School Board on Monday put down the welcome mat in front of Nature Coast Technical High.
A divided board approved a settlement agreement to allow two former Nature Coast students who sued for the right to return to the Brooksville magnet school next week despite living beyond the county's borders at the time of admission.
The board also voted to extend the same offer to the other six out-of-county students whose appeals the board denied in June.
But they didn't stop there. In a nod to any Hernando County students who may have been bumped by ineligible students, board members agreed to offer spots to Hernando students now on a waiting list to attend Nature Coast. School starts on Monday.
The board reached the decisions during a special meeting to discuss the lawsuit filed by Brooksville attorney Bruce Snow on behalf of two Nature Coast juniors who were among those told they could not return this year because they did not reside in Hernando County.
"While we may have a legitimate case, there is no surety that we would prevail," said board member John Sweeney, who voted in the 3-2 majority to settle the lawsuit.
Board policy prohibits out-of-county students from attending the magnet school.
School officials discovered this year that 20 nonresidents, mostly from Pasco County, had been admitted anyway in recent years, apparently because no one confirmed addresses. Former Nature Coast principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles has said she was unaware that a Spring Hill address could be in either Pasco or Hernando County.
Snow contends that by refusing to allow the students to return, the board effectively breached a contract created by the admission agreement signed by parents that states a student "is required to remain in the school for a minimum of one year and may remain there until the completion of 12th grade."
A Circuit Court hearing had been set for this afternoon in Brooksville. School Board attorney Paul Carland had told the board in recent weeks that the district stood on firm legal ground.
But comments by board members after a 75-minute closed-door session with Carland and a litigation attorney on Monday indicated the lawyers advised the board that the district would be better off settling the lawsuit.
"We have to look at the financial end of it as well," board member Pat Fagan said, citing the likelihood of high legal bills. "We all agree this morning we don't like being in the position we're in but talking with legal, I think we're making the right decision."
Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield and Sandra Nicholson dissented in the settlement vote.
Dissent on the board
A court fight would have been worth the effort to show that the board will defend district policies and to avoid giving the impression that the members will back down in the face of a lawsuit, Bonfield and Nicholson said.
"My opinion is this board is basically being strong-armed to come to this decision," Bonfield said.
Nicholson and Bonfield also dissented when Sweeney moved to allow the other six students, who will be sophomores and juniors this year, to attend the school if they still want to.
The move would head off any more suits, some board members reasoned. "So we're not back in this same situation," Fagan said.
A few minutes later, Fagan moved to raise the attendance cap at Nature Coast and allow the students on the waiting list to attend the school this year with the understanding they might not get into the specific programs they want. Fagan said during the meeting that he thought there were about 65 students on that list, but assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson said Monday the most recent number she saw was about 120 students.
Fagan's motion got approved with a 4-1 vote, with only Nicholson dissenting.
"At least we can say there is an acknowledgment that students in this county didn't get into that school," Bonfield said to justify her vote. "How can we ever forgive that?"
'We're happy it's over'
Snow represented the families of Jennifer Alred and James DeMaria. Alred lives in Pasco just south of County Line Road and will continue in Nature Coast's cosmetology program. DeMaria has since moved to Hernando from Pasco and will remain in the school's information technology program.
"We recognize the School Board has a tough job and there are conflicting governing principles involved," Snow said. "We're happy that once we reached this point in the deliberative process, they reached the correct result."
"We're happy it's over," said Sandy Noble, Alred's mother. "We're sorry it had to come to this."
Noble said she is glad that her willingness to go to court also will benefit the other six students. "That's what we were hoping for," she said.
The board members await the results of an internal investigation into exactly how the students were admitted in the first place.
The court hearing likely would have required district staffers to provide the same kinds of details. By late last week, Snow had subpoenaed Schoelles, Jackson, superintendent Wayne Alexander, former Nature Coast assistant principal Joy Greene, student services director Jim Knight and former superintendent Wendy Tellone.
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.