BROOKSVILLE — For 17-year-old Zack Wilborn, the prospect of taking care of people for a living drew him to Nature Coast Technical High School.
"It's always been my dream to be in the medical field," Wilborn said. He's considering spinal surgery or maybe cardiology, and hasn't ruled out dentistry.
Wilborn enrolled in Nature Coast's cluster of science courses to prepare him for college and then, perhaps, medical school.
Attracting children from throughout Hernando County who have an interest in specialized programs is how magnet schools are supposed to work.
Wilborn, though, lives in Pasco County. So does his sister Christy, an 18-year-old senior in Nature Coast's computer graphics program.
Now Zack Wilborn's plans are at stake as school officials wrestle with how to handle a situation that, according to district policy, never should have happened.
The Wilborn siblings are among 20 Nature Coast students who live in Pasco or Citrus counties and who attend the magnet school, according to memos sent by district staffers to the School Board last week.
The district's policy states that only students who live in Hernando County are eligible for admission into the limited slots in the magnet programs.
Now the board is faced with a decision: send away the students who are not graduating this year, or allow them to stay.
School services director Sonya Jackson has recommended to superintendent Wayne Alexander that the board enforce the policy and tell the students and their families that their luck has run out. The students can apply to attend one of the county's schools, but not a magnet program, Alexander told the board in a memo last month.
"I would probably be devastated" if that happened, Zack Wilborn said. No school in Pasco offers what he's getting at Nature Coast, he said.
The district refused to provide the St. Petersburg Times with a list of the students, citing state laws protecting student records.
But several families — including the Wilborns — addressed the School Board Tuesday. They contend that they were never informed of the policy and should be allowed to finish their schooling here.
In some cases, families have already received letters from the district informing them that their children would not be allowed to return next school year.
The Wilborns received their letter about a week ago, said Craig Wilborn, Zack and Christy's father. The family never tried to hide their address on Overstreet Lane, about a mile south of County Line Road, and has placed it on countless school documents in the last four years, Craig Wilborn said.
He said he understands the frustration likely felt by many Hernando parents who wonder if their children lost a coveted spot because of his kids. But the district failed in its responsibility to make its policy clear and to vet candidates, he said.
"Let the kids that have been there finish out their school years," Craig Wilborn said. "Let them graduate."
School Board members at a workshop Tuesday expressed frustration not only at the problem, but also at how long it went undetected.
Between 2006 and 2008, 15 students who reside out of the county have graduated from Nature Coast, according to a memo to the board from Jackson.
"Who dropped the ball?" board member John Sweeney asked Jackson.
Officials at the school level, Jackson replied.
"It was left for the administration when the (student) portfolio came in to review that information," Jackson said.
That has already been changed, though, Jackson said. Now district officials review applications.
She noted that Nature Coast's application states that "all eighth grade students in Hernando County" are eligible to apply.
Cheryl Standiford says she never saw that when her son Jared submitted his application.
The Standifords live in Pasco about 2 miles south of County Line Road. Jared is now a junior and is a couple of credits shy of earning his certification in Nature Coast's graphic arts, his mother said.
"It seems unfair to tell a young man who has worked so hard that he can't finish," Cheryl Standiford told the board Tuesday.
The family has requested a variance from the district to allow Jared to stay.
John Vitale, a Brooksville attorney and a family friend of the Standifords who sent a letter to the school district requesting the variance, said Jared and other students are caught in what he called "a fight over sports in this county."
He said rumblings that admissions policies were overlooked for athletic recruiting purposes will likely compel school officials to take a hard line.
School Board attorney Paul Carland said it will be up to the board to decide whether to come up with a comprehensive solution for out-of-county magnet students or address them on a case-by-case basis through the variance process.
"We're going to be asked to break our own policy," Chairwoman Dianne Bonfield said during the workshop Tuesday.
Sweeney and fellow board member James Yant indicated that they may be willing to let the students stay.
Board member Pat Fagan said he sees both sides, and that he's inclined to look at the specifics of each case. Either way, it won't be an easy decision, Fagan said.
"I've got to put a lot of thought into this," he said.
Reach Tony Marrero at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.