LAND O'LAKES — A standout senior soccer player's court challenge to Pasco County's high school athlete transfer policy has highlighted one potential flaw with the system — whether the School Board has overstepped the law.
But board members themselves also have begun to question some of the details of their rule, which leaves some transfers on the sidelines for a year, as they see it put into practice.
"The policy needs to be clarified," board member Steve Luikart said. "They know it. We know it."
Luikart reiterated his support for the overarching goal of preventing students from transferring high schools for solely athletic reasons. That's why the board decided in the spring to require all students who switch high schools to sit out of athletics for a year, unless they win an appeal to a committee of athletic directors and administrators.
The board instructed its lawyer to defend the lawsuit by a Dade City parent who contends the district has no right in law to deny his son's appeal to play soccer at Sunlake High after a transfer from Pasco High.
"Based on the information we have, the district is sticking with its position," board attorney Dennis Alfonso said. "The board is going to support its policy and its authority."
A hearing in the case is set for Nov. 20.
The issue that prompted Luikart to call for other revisions stems from what he considers an ambiguity in the rule.
He referred to the case of two Ridgewood High School football players who were told midyear they had to leave the team until they asked the district committee for a waiver from the one-year rule. Each had attended Schwettman Education Center, an alternative school, in 2012-13 and had returned to Ridgewood for the new academic year.
Luikart argued that the students didn't transfer, but rather were administratively assigned into and out of the alternative school. They should not have to go through the appeal process, he said.
"It upset me that we made a kid sit who didn't do anything at all, just to go through a process that I don't think applied at all," he said.
District executive director of operations Ray Bonti, who oversees the policy for the superintendent's office, said the administration did not want to distinguish among different types of student moves. So it took the position that any student who changed high schools after entering as a freshman would have to submit a request to waive the one-year ban.
"If they came from an alternative school, we view that as they were previously in another school," Bonti said.
Ridgewood's principal and athletic director should have told the students and their families of their responsibilities as soon as they arrived for classes, he added.
In the end, one of the players was allowed to return to the team, and the other was not because of other eligibility issues. Bonti noted that of more than 100 appeals, about 97 percent have been granted once families demonstrated their school change was not for athletic reasons and no recruiting had taken place.
Unless the board changes its rules, he added, the administration will continue to implement the policy as it reads.
Luikart agreed with that philosophy and said he would push for changes. Board vice chairwoman Alison Crumbley said added clarity would be in everyone's interest.
She also stressed that she was not seeking to overturn the entire effort.
"We're trying to follow Florida statutes but fine tune it for ourselves," Crumbley said. "The whole purpose is so people aren't jumping around for recruiting purposes. We have to have it. But it has to be plain and clear."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.