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Fighting illegal athletic transfers no easy feat for Florida school districts

Depending on which side one stands on the issue of prep football players freely transferring to other schools in the offseason, Merritt Island High principal Gary Shiffrin is either a pioneer or pariah.

As the new millennium dawned, Shiffrin — then a middle school principal and commissioner of the Cape Coast Conference — spearheaded radical legislation ultimately passed by the Brevard County school district.

The rule: Any student who transferred from one county public school to another after entering ninth grade was ineligible for sports, varsity or junior varsity, for a calendar year.

"It helped to at least have a level playing field," said Shiffrin, prompted to pursue a more stringent transfer policy after watching Merritt Island win state baseball titles in 1999 and 2000 with only a handful of players who lived on the island.

"And it allowed the schools to develop their programs with kids who lived in their area."

The policy, which had an appeals process in place, existed for nearly a decade. Wary of a few impending challenges to the policy and the potential costs of a legal fight, the school board abolished it at the end of the 2008-09 school year.

But on the other side of the state, its spirit lives on.

In the era of school choice, when prominent Tampa Bay area football players are transferring to other schools by the dozens each offseason, many coaches are clamoring for their school districts to tighten transfer policies.

In essence, they want to replicate Brevard County. Or Miami-Dade. Or even Texas.

"It's been progressively worse over the years," Alonso football coach Mike Heldt said. "Do I think something has to be done about it? Absolutely."

The state tried in 2006. Shiff­rin was on the Florida High School Athletic Association's representative assembly when it overwhelmingly approved a proposal essentially identical to Brevard County's (with exceptions in place). One difference would have allowed transfers to play sub-varsity sports. Later that year, however, it was scuttled amid pressure from private schools and legislative bills challenging it.

"Why pursue something that's not going to stand up in court?" said Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson, who also was on the FHSAA task force that helped pass the 2006 rule. "But I voted for (tighter transfer rules) before. I would do it again."

Sonny Hester, FHSAA associate executive director/chief administrative officer, echoed that not much can be done.

"(School choice) is one of those things we have no control over," he said. "Like it or not, choice is here. Who gives us the right to tell a parent the school where they can send their kid. …We do have a right to say someone affiliated from School A cannot entice someone to come to School B, but it's very hard to prove."

At the district level, however, some success stories have surfaced about fighting transfer problems. Many coaches want to see more.

A difficult fight

Locally, no bay area school district has employed a rule as strict as Brevard's. Pasco County's school choice policy indicates transfer requests won't be honored for athletic reasons, and county athletic director Phil Bell personally scrutinizes each school choice application received by the district.

But even Bell acknowledges some people "manipulate the system" to try to transfer their child for sports.

"It's naive to think that doesn't happen," he said.

What to do? Bell said his list of "summer projects" includes forming a small committee to gauge the feasibility of proposing a stiffer transfer policy. If organized, the committee may look south for inspiration.

Jefferson High AD Bob Morgan wishes the Hillsborough County school district would "firm up a transfer rule."

"The one seeming to work would be to sit out or play JV," he said. "The (transfers) that bother me the most are the juniors or seniors. We lost four or five kids to Chamberlain, and the joke was we were the farm teams for other schools.

"We've had some of our kids contacted, and there was one that thought about leaving. He didn't. It becomes disheartening for those that work with them."

Next month marks the 10th anniversary of a rule implemented by the school board of Miami-Dade County to curb recruiting and transfers.

In that county, a student choosing to attend another school without moving physical residence must sit out of athletics for one year. A legitimate move of residence would allow students to be eligible within seven days of a transfer.

The rule was put in place after Miami High was forced to forfeit the 1998 Class 6A state basketball championship after using ineligible players. According to a published report, 11 of Miami's 12 players lived outside of the school's zone.

It would have been Miami's 18th state title at the time, but the Florida High School Activities Association (now the Florida High School Athletic Association) fined the school a then-record $7,705.91 and banned it from regular- and postseason tournaments. Coach Frank Martin and athletic director Tiger Nunez were fired.

The school district realized a fix was in order.

Magnet programs once helped schools such as Miami High bring in legitimate transfers through an educational magnet, though often they were abused to help bring in athletes with ulterior motives.

Today, the school district expects kids to enroll in magnet programs in ninth grade with no penalty. A move after ninth grade would result in a one-year athletic ban.

"If you are (6 feet 10), you could get into the educational magnet at Miami High as a junior," Greater Miami Athletic Conference athletic director Cheryl Golden said.

"At that point, we said if you transfer schools for academic reasons, you are academically eligible. Well, if I wanted a team and had a magnet program, I would go out and get whoever. Now it says as long as you fill out the paperwork and go through the process … you are eligible."

Bed checks, of sorts

Golden said the problem with recruiting and transfers can never truly be eliminated. But safeguards are in place to limit the problem. In her district, a change of address is investigated by school employees who do random checks at the new address.

"If you have a high-profile program, my athletic directors are going out and verifying addresses," Golden said. "When we can't find clothes there and your furniture hasn't been delivered … we flat out tell parents, 'We're coming, but I don't know when.' I had one where a parent called and said, 'I'm sick and tired of being in this apartment with no furniture. I want to go home.' "

A committee of nine voting members listens to hardship appeals throughout the school year, beginning twice in August. Golden said the rule has been challenged three times in court and the school district has won every time.

In Polk County, school district officials have worked feverishly to close gaping loopholes that would allow kids to transfer for sports. The result: "We had the easiest year we ever had last year (in terms of transfers)," county athletic director Don Bridges said.

Bridges said no transfers are granted to schools at full capacity. Additionally, kids who transfer to schools with a "workforce" program (nursing, cosmetology, etc.) must go back to their original school if they drop out of that program.

And though students can transfer to take an advance-placement course not offered at their school, they must return to their original school once the course is completed.

"We fought the (transfer) battle and weren't winning the war," Bridges said. "So we said, 'Let's just win a few battles and close all the reasons you can transfer.' "

But Bridges acknowledges that neither his county, nor anyone, likely will be able to snuff out sports-based transfers.

And so the battles continue.

"It's something that, as far as I'm concerned, is a very negative thing for prep sports because that's not what we're all about," Shiffrin said. "And that's what we're turning into."

Staff writer Eduardo A. Encina contributed to this report.

fast facts

Coming Saturday

We look at top players who stay at programs with athletic and academic standards that aren't up to par, and Tampa Bay area coaches sound off on the current generation of players, who they say seem to have no qualms about competing for multiple schools, even rivals.

On the Web

Jefferson High athletic director Bob Morgan shares more of his thoughts on recruiting at blogs.
tampabay.com/preps/

State-ly comparisons

A look at student-athlete transfer policies in other states:

Alabama

Students transferring between member schools of the Alabama High School Athletic Association must sit for a minimum of nine months, depending on the reason. One exception is when a transfer is from a nonmember school to a member school. Another is when a student transfers into an International Baccalaureate program. In those cases, students are immediately eligible.

California

The California Interscholastic Federation places limits on students who transfer without changing their physical address during the school year; the students are prohibited from participating in varsity sports in which they had competed for one calendar year. The federation has limits similar to those imposed by the FHSAA, such as enforcing academic and disciplinary actions and policing blatant attempts by schools and coaches to recruit students for athletics. But the federation calls on local "sections" to create and enforce whatever transfer rules they see fit. Students can seek hardship waivers.

Georgia

Athletes who transfer must prove a "bona fide" move to a new residence to be eligible at their new school. "Bona fide" means it must be apparent that the student and the people with whom he resides relinquished residence at their former home and now occupy a new residence. Proof of relinquishment include selling the old residence, having the old residence listed with a real estate agent for sale at a fair market value and shutting off unnecessary utilities. When a family claims multiple residences, the residence for which it applies for a homestead exemption is declared the primary residence.

New York

Athletes maintain eligibility upon moving from one school district to another, but a move to another school without a change in physical address makes them ineligible for one year. Exemptions include if a student is declared homeless by the superintendent, if a school ceases to operate or if guardianship changes due to a court order.

Texas

A student who changes schools for athletics is not eligible to compete in varsity sports at his new school for at least one calendar year, even if both parents move to the new school district attendance zone. A district executive committee determines whether a student has changed schools for athletic purposes.

Fighting illegal athletic transfers no easy feat for Florida school districts 07/23/09 [Last modified: Friday, July 24, 2009 6:59pm]

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