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Girl sues to attend magnet school

BROOKSVILLE — For months, Sandy Noble has maintained that the Hernando School Board needs to do the right thing and allow her daughter to finish her high school days at Nature Coast Technical.

Now, she wants a judge to force the board to let the student return .

Noble's attorney, Bruce Snow of Brooksville, has filed a lawsuit in Circuit Court against the board on behalf of 16-year-old Jennifer Alred, who is referred to in the complaint as "J.A."

Snow seeks an injunction to let Alred attend classes on Aug. 24, the first day of school, according to the complaint. Snow also wants a declaratory judgment giving Alred the right to attend Nature Coast through graduation.

Snow said late Monday that another student has been added to the complaint. The student, like Alred, would have been a junior this year and wasn't a resident at the time of admission. The student has since moved to Hernando, Snow said.

Snow seeks an emergency hearing and hopes to be in front of a judge in the coming days. The case has been assigned to Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. A hearing date hadn't been set by Monday afternoon.

Alred, who lives with Noble just south of the Hernando/Pasco line, was among eight out-of-county students, five of them juniors, whose appeals to remain at Nature Coast were denied by the School Board in June.

School district policy restricts magnet school admission to residents of Hernando County, but officials discovered that 20 nonresidents had been admitted anyway in recent years.

Alred is about halfway through the cosmetology program.

"She just wants to finish what she started," Noble said Monday. "Why disrupt her life when she hasn't done anything wrong?"

Among the legal arguments made in the complaint:

• The board effectively breached a contract created by the admission agreement signed by Noble in January 2007 that states her daughter "is required to remain in the school for a minimum of one year and may remain there until the completion of 12th grade."

• The board violated Alred's right to due process by not allowing families to speak, call witnesses or present evidence during the June 2 appeals hearing. At that hearing, the board voted to deny all 10 of the students' appeals, including three who will be seniors this year. One of the seniors had not filed an appeal.

Snow contends the right to due process was trounced again that evening when the board discussed the issue at its regular evening meeting without notifying the families of students who had appealed. The board voted to partially reverse its decision and allow the three seniors to return.

• The board violated Alred's right to equal protection by allowing the seniors to remain and forcing the rest to leave.

Board holds firm

Snow said he hoped to avoid a legal battle with the district. He exchanged letters with School Board attorney Paul Carland outlining his legal grounds in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade the board to reconsider.

"In that case, the only recourse left to do is what (the plaintiffs) elected to do," Snow said.

Carland did not return a call seeking comment Monday.

Carland told the board about Snow's letters at a regular meeting on July 28 and said he is convinced the district stands on firm legal footing. He also noted at the meeting that there are two high schools in Pasco County that offer cosmetology programs.

"I'm happy to hear that," board member Sandra Nicholson said as a tearful Alred sat next to her mother in the audience. "There will be no harm to the end goal. The student can graduate and get her certification."

The board agreed to take no action, though member James Yant repeated what he said after the June hearing: All the students who appealed should be allowed to return to the school to minimize the disruption to their high school education.

"We can't win in this situation," Yant said Monday in response to the lawsuit. "We may be able to legally win, but we can't win when the student is going to lose."

'Not parallel' choice

The high schools in Pasco County that offer cosmetology — Pasco High in Dade City and Marchman Technical Education Center in New Port Richey — are at least 45 minutes away from Noble's home, Noble said. The trip to Nature Coast takes about 10 minutes.

Marchman is a vocational school and not well suited for students like her daughter who are headed to college, Noble said. Alred plans to work at a salon to help pay for college tuition.

"It's not parallel at all to Nature Coast," Noble said.

Her complaint notes that Alred has attended Hernando County schools since kindergarten. Noble says the policy that requires students to live in the county for admission to magnet schools was never explained to her.

Meanwhile, the district continues to investigate how out-of-county students were admitted in the first place.

Assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson has said that addresses should have been verified at the school level. Former Nature Coast principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles has taken responsibility for some of the students because she was not aware that some Spring Hill addresses cross into Pasco. The procedure has since been changed so that addresses are confirmed by central office staffers.

Officials apparently were still working out glitches recently.

Craig Wilborn says he received a letter about three weeks ago welcoming his son Zack back to Nature Coast. The Wilborns live in Pasco, and Zack was among the juniors whose appeals were denied. Craig Wilborn said district officials told him the letter went out in error .

Wilborn says he consulted with an attorney with thoughts of fighting like Noble, but he balked at the bill for legal representation that couldn't guarantee success.

"I don't feel like forking out $2,000 for a maybe," Wilborn said. He said Zack will attend Springstead High this year, which is not a magnet school.

Reach Tony Marrero at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Girl sues to attend magnet school 08/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 10:46pm]
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