TAMPA — It is 12:30 p.m. on a Tuesday as members of the Hillsborough County School Board sit down to rule on who should be allowed to throw a baseball or run the 100-meter for their newly chosen high schools.
The task is part of a busy day, sandwiched between wall-to-wall meetings, and it puts board members in unfamiliar territory.
They are hearing eligibility appeals from high school athletes, a duty they took on in the aftermath of a player eligibility scandal last year that forced Armwood to relinquish its state football title.
The stakes, they are realizing, are high.
For students, a successful run at a standout school can lead to college and a chance at a professional career.
For the district, it's a matter of fairness — not to mention compliance with state athletic rules. Students are not supposed to be allowed to skip from one school to another just to play a sport.
Getting to the bottom of each case requires board members to consider family situations, a process that often takes them into sensitive and deeply personal areas for which there are no clear rules or policies.
Before Armwood, principals handled the sticky details of athletes requesting school transfers. Now a group of elected officials is ultimate authority on who can play ball.
So far under the new system, fewer students are transferring. But when they do, and when they pursue their cases all the way to the School Board, members are finding it hard to say no.
On that recent Tuesday, the agenda named four student athletes asking for transfers. A baseball player wanted to go to Armwood but failed to show up for the second time. That's a denial.
That left three cases to hear.
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The idea behind the change was to take decisions on student transfers away from schools, which could be perceived as having a vested interest in winning titles. Change was likely to happen even if the Armwood scandal had never happened, said district athletics director Lanness Robinson.
Now if a student changes schools, he or she is automatically denied the right to play a sport for one year.
A committee of school officials and community members can overturn that decision, but only if the case meets one of four criteria: the student gets married; is assigned a new guardian; is transferred by the district for educational reasons; or the student's family has made "a full and complete move."
If the situation does not fall into those categories and the committee says no to a transfer, the student can appeal to the School Board.
Board members puzzled over their first case, involving a Plant High soccer player who had transferred from the private Berkeley Preparatory School. The committee was deadlocked. The athlete lived in the Plant attendance area, so the School Board ruled in his favor.
Afterwards, member Candy Olson offered to work with district officials to fine-tune the policy. Those changes are still pending and could require another round of public hearings.
It's not lost on anyone that four of the board's first five appeals involved transfers to athletic powerhouses Armwood and Plant.
After the baseball player failed to show at the Tuesday afternoon hearing, the next to come forward was an Armwood student who had transferred from Zephyrhills High after moving from his mother's house to his father's house.
He wanted to play football.
Dad apologized for failing to bring documentation of the custody change to the first committee. The move is permanent, they said. The son confirmed that, under Dad's care, he is hitting the books and getting good grades.
Court documents were passed around, and the board voted unanimously for the student.
"Go play football at Armwood, son" said member Susan Valdes.
"Study first," Olson added.
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Most cases don't go to the School Board. The committee is good at weeding out the bad ones, says Robinson, the district athletic director. And under the new system, transfers are not as common as they used to be.
"At one school this time last year, we had 27 transfers," Robinson says. "And we've seen 49 total in the four months that we've done this."
But member Cindy Stuart wonders if all that will change when families realize they have a good shot at a favorable ruling from the School Board.
And she worries that, before all the details are worked out, her board will set precedents that will be hard to break.
Committee member Sonny Hester, once a top official with the Florida High School Athletic Association, said it shouldn't matter that School Board members are green-lighting most of the cases they hear. Those cases represent a fraction of those that enter the process, and an even smaller fraction of attempted transfers under the old system.
"You're not seeing the ones that used to transfer without good intentions," he said. Nor should it matter to the committee if its decisions are overturned by the School Board.
"It's their policy," Hester said. "They made it and they should have the final say about it."
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Next up: Another would-be baseball player for Armwood. This one came from Strawberry Crest, just four miles away.
Reason for the move?
The player's grandfather, who lives in the Armwood zone, is in poor health. The mother cannot hire full-time care. So she and her son moved in with him, leaving the rest of the family behind.
She insisted she did not know her son would miss a year of baseball. He shouldn't be punished, she said. She could have kept him at Strawberry Crest — which, it turns out, has a strong baseball program. But Armwood made more sense because of her commute to work.
Valdes and Olson sympathized with her. Stuart noted there was no documentation of the grandfather's need for care.
Board member Stacy White also had doubts. "I'll be very frank," he said. He asked: Was this partly about the athlete "desiring to play baseball at Armwood instead of Strawberry Crest?"
There was an interruption and White never got an answer. They ruled for the student, with White dissenting.
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Last up: A student who moved from Jefferson High to Robinson. He wanted to run track.
His father, who is in the military, thought he was getting a civilian job near Jefferson. But that didn't happen.
The athlete's grades were good.
But his disciplinary record was enough to make superintendent MaryEllen Elia sit up and take note. "I am looking at this report and I don't have a vote here, so you're probably lucky about that," she said. "Because the behavior here is unacceptable."
Olson agreed. "I look at this and what I see is an attitude," she said. "If you had wanted to participate, I would have liked not to see all these referrals."
They didn't go into specifics. Robinson assistant principal Marcia Monk assured the panel she keeps a close watch on her athletes.
Once again, the student prevailed. The board voted 4-1.
Before that happened, member Doretha Edgecomb told the athlete: "We want the best for you, we have high expectations for you and we hope you're going to have them for yourself too."
Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or [email protected]