The School Board already faced an uphill battle against two ineligible students who had sued to return to Nature Coast Technical High School, an attorney told the board members in a closed-door meeting on Aug. 17.
But on the eve of a hearing before a judge, the members learned of another big problem: Student records that could have been evidence in the looming legal battle were missing. They may have been shredded.
District officials are now investigating the missing documents, assistant superintendent Sonya Jackson told the St. Petersburg Times on Wednesday.
"We're looking into that right now, so at this point I can't share anything with you," Jackson said.
Board member Sandra Nicholson said she hopes to find out three facts: "What was shredded, who did it, and who authorized it."
The board learned of the missing documents from board attorney Paul Carland and litigation attorney Lisa Augspurger during the Aug. 17 executive session to discuss the lawsuit by two would-be Nature Coast juniors, according to a transcript of the session obtained by the Times.
The students were among 19 out-of-county students who had been admitted in recent years despite a district policy that bars nonresidents from attending Hernando magnet schools.
The board later the same day would vote 3 to 2 to settle the lawsuit by allowing the two students to return. The board also invited 12 other out-of-county students, many of them from Pasco County, and some 260 resident students on the waiting list to attend if they wished.
The missing documents were one of several factors in the decision to settle the lawsuit, according to the transcript.
A folder at Nature Coast that contained at least some admission applications of the out-of-county students had apparently disappeared, Augspurger and Carland told the board.
It's unclear from the transcript when that was discovered or when any shredding may have taken place.
The attorneys told the board they didn't know whether the documents were copies. Augspurger, however, said she worried some of the missing documents were "original documents that were signed and agreed to by both parties": the district and the students' families.
There were apparently "three very large bags of shredded papers" that were still available as clues to what may have been destroyed, Augspurger told the board.
But the district didn't have time to figure out what was shredded - and whether the documents were originals or copies - in time for the next day's injunction hearing, Augspurger told the board.
Circuit Judge Daniel Merritt, Jr. would have to be told about the missing documents during the hearing because they could have included items he would need to make a ruling, she said.
"In my review ... it's going to look very concerning to Judge Merritt," Augspurger told the board. "It doesn't look good when you're fixing to go into a trial on Tuesday."
Augspurger said the missing files could have just been a case of an overzealous staffer doing some housecleaning as Nature Coast brought on a new principal and prepared for a new school year.
Former principal Margaret "Tizzy" Schoelles officially left July 1 and Toni-Ann Noyes took her place. Neither Schoelles, now principal at Fox Chapel Middle, nor Noyes returned calls for comment Wednesday.
Even without the issue of the missing documents, the students probably would win an emergency injunction request to attend Nature Coast while the case dragged on for months on appeal, Augspurger said during the meeting.
She predicted the next day's injunction hearing would likely be an emotional one, giving advantage to the distraught students claiming their high school educations were at stake.
She gave the district less than a 50/50 chance of defeating the injunction and better than a 50/50 chance of ultimately winning the lawsuit - but not much better.
"The thing is that we go in looking like the big bad entity, the big bad School Board, and they're two young people, so you have those images," Augspurger said.
"(In) the big scheme of things, I'm not certain that the percentages of definitely prevailing are worth it to you to fight it out," she said.
Board member Nicholson recalled Wednesday feeling shock when told about the missing documents. State statute allows for the destruction of copies of records, but original documents must be kept on file.
"That's just basic," Nicholson said. If originals were shredded, "something needs to be done."
Board member Pat Fagan, who has been a proponent of accepting that mistakes were made and moving on without punishing staffers, said this is an issue that needs to be investigated.
"I just want to make sure we take care of whatever happened and find out what exactly transpired," Fagan said.
Board member James Yant agreed.
"That's kind of a fishy situation," Yant said. "I don't think you can just drop it."
A separate investigation found that Nature Coast officials failed to put in place a procedure to screen addresses and district officials did not check to make sure that screening was being done. Schoelles said she was given no clear direction from the central office on how to check addresses.
Jackson said that was left for the principals to oversee.
In the Aug. 17 meeting, superintendent Wayne Alexander told the board those findings are "ultimately the responsibility of the superintendent and they are being addressed." He recommended the board settle the lawsuit and also consider the resident students on the waiting list.
The district has centralized the magnet school admission procedure and is working on other safeguards to keep ineligible students from gaining admission.
Tony Marrero can be reached at email@example.com or (352) 848-1431.