BROOKSVILLE — Nature Coast Technical High School principal Tizzy Schoelles concedes that some out-of-county students are violating district policy by attending the school because of errors on her part.
In her first public comments on the subject, Schoelles on Monday also said the district has provided little support over the years to ensure applicants to magnet schools live in this county.
She expressed frustration, however, at continued rumblings that the presence of those students is evidence that Nature Coast shirked that policy to land ringers for its athletic programs.
"Kids' lives are being pulled apart and destroyed because there's an assumption they're being brought here for athletics," Schoelles said. "I feel bad for them, and I feel bad I've put the School Board in this position."
The students, Schoelles says, should be allowed to stay at the school.
"I wouldn't kick students out of their high school," she said. "I think it's in the best interests of the students who are there to be allowed to stay."
The district discovered earlier this year that 20 Nature Coast students live beyond the county line, most of them in Pasco County. Officials launched an investigation after learning that a Pasco County resident was playing on the football team, Schoelles said. That student has since transferred to a school in Pasco County.
Last week, when a School Board member asked school services director Sonya Jackson "who dropped the ball" on the issue, Jackson replied that administrators at the school level should have checked addresses to ensure noncounty residents were not admitted.
Several parents have said the district's policy that forbids non-residents from attending magnet schools was not made explicit to them.
Schoelles said Monday she accepts responsibility for at least four of the students who have Spring Hill addresses but who reside in Pasco County. The students all live in the 34610 ZIP code, which is entirely in Pasco.
She said she was not aware that a portion of Spring Hill dips south of County Line Road.
"Ignorance is no excuse on my part, but I had no idea that was the case," she said.
Two students attended Hernando County schools but lived outside of the county when they applied to attend Nature Coast, Schoelles said. Out-of-county residents are eligible to apply for a spot in a nonmagnet school in Hernando County.
Schoelles, who has been transferred to serve as principal at Fox Chapel Middle School in Spring Hill starting in the fall, said the district has done little up to now to help her ensure that applicants reside in Hernando. She has in the past asked for a list of out-of-county students in the district so she can check those against applicants to her school, she said. She has yet to receive it.
Schoelles conceded that she should have pressed harder to get that list each year since she opened the school in 2003. The district should check tax rolls to confirm addresses as part of the admissions process, she said.
"I didn't have a good procedure in place," she said. "I'm the principal and I'm responsible for that."
Superintendent Wayne Alexander did not return calls for comment Monday.
Jackson told the School Board last week that the district has created a central admissions policy to prevent the mistake from happening again
Of the 20 students, five had Spring Hill addresses — in Hernando County — at the time of the application and evidently moved later, Schoelles said.
Schoelles said her gut tells her that none of the families aimed to beat the system.
One parent has already applied for a variance to allow her son, a junior, to continue at Nature Coast. It will be up to the board to grant or deny the request.
School Board attorney Paul Carland said Monday he will ask board members at their meeting May 19 when they want to hear that request.
"No matter what decision we make, we're going to get beat up, but it's the child I'm most worried about," said School Board member Pat Fagan. "You've got to really think hard as an individual if you're going to punish that child for the mistakes of others."
Tony Marrero can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.