Monday, April 23, 2018
Education

Hillsborough education officials clash over athlete's placement

TAMPA — Going around the superintendent and staff, Hillsborough County School Board Chairwoman April Griffin last month appealed to state athletic officials on behalf of a Plant High School tennis player facing eligibility problems.

"I am writing to you in my capacity as the chairwoman of the Hillsborough County school district," the letter opens, although later in the paragraph Griffin specifies that she is stating her personal opinion and not the board's.

The letter was written on School Board stationery. Roger Dearing, head of the Florida High School Athletic Association and a superintendent for 16 years, said he found the move unusual and was surprised when superintendent MaryEllen Elia told him she didn't know anything about it.

"Typically if a board member writes a letter and it's on official stationery, it's official business that the board has taken," he said. "Otherwise, they are writing as a citizen."

Griffin called his remark "typical of a former superintendent." And she said she told Elia she was going to write the letter.

Elia has said nothing publicly about the matter. But the letter has been shared with the rest of the board, and Griffin said that, based on her experience with Elia, she fears it will be cast in a negative light.

Griffin said she did nothing wrong and was simply stating her opinion on a case she thought was handled badly.

However, School Board members usually do not immerse themselves in day-to-day decisions, particularly in the volatile area of athletic eligibility. Board members, including the chairwoman, are charged with setting district policy.

Griffin said she got involved because the family reached out to her through a mutual acquaintance.

"I was helping them as a countywide School Board member advocating for one of my constituents who came to me," she said.

The case concerns a student, now 16, whose family says they divide their time between a south Tampa home in the Plant attendance zone and a Palm River farm that is zoned for Blake High School.

They have a homestead exemption on the smaller south Tampa home. Griffin said they provided utility bills and other necessary documentation to establish residence in the Plant zone.

But, based on an anonymous tip, the girl was called into the Plant office and questioned about how many nights the family slept in the two homes. Interviews with the parents followed, then an investigation and a series of hearings.

The girl was denied a spot on the team but allowed to stay in school until the end of the year.

Today she and her younger sister are taking classes online, their parents said.

Rob Nelson, Plant's principal, would not comment on the case but said such investigations are common at the school, an athletic and academic powerhouse.

"I'm under more of a microscope than anybody," Nelson said, "and I have a community to answer to." Any time there is uncertainty, he added, he consults with his supervisors in the district.

Griffin, however, said that the policies are not enforced consistently and that what the district did to the family was tantamount to harassment. After she complained to Elia, Griffin said, the district opened a second investigation.

Griffin said staff was overzealous in its visits to the home and the neighbors. "The board has not told staff to do this," she said. The board will discuss the issue in a workshop later this month, she said. But for now, she said the rules are ambiguous at best.

Elia declined to comment Wednesday. But she was "adamant" in her support of Nelson's findings, according to a letter about the matter that Dearing copied to the district.

The disagreement over the Plant athlete is just one of many points of friction between Griffin, who recently announced her withdrawal from a Hillsborough County Commission campaign, and Elia, the district's top administrator since 2005.

Early this year, Griffin tried to persuade the board to hire an independent auditor as a check on the administration's power over a $2.8 billion budget. More recently she tried to require disclosures for employees who make financial decisions. The School Board voted down both measures.

In July, Elia and school district attorney Thomas Gonzalez were overheard on a hot microphone during a break in a board meeting, discussing the need for the district to counter its critics who speak at the meetings. Elia agreed with Gonzalez when he said Griffin was "in on it," referring to a practice of allowing speakers to stray off topic. Griffin has asked Elia several times for an apology. She has not received one.

During last week's board meeting, Griffin made a passing reference to the letter to the FHSAA. When a member asked about it afterward, Elia sent copies to the whole board, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

While not familiar with the dynamics between Elia and Griffin, Dearing said that as far as he can tell, the school and district staff did what they had to do to make sure the athlete complied with residency rules.

"I think principal Nelson did an excellent job in this situation," he said.

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356.

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