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School board chair's letter on Plant student raises eyebrows

TAMPA – Months after her own school district found a student ineligible to play sports at Plant High School, the chairwoman of the Hillsborough County School Board asked the agency that oversees high school athletics to reconsider the ruling.

On Aug. 5, Chairwoman April Griffin wrote on district letterhead to the Florida High School Athletics Association to say parents Mike and Nicole Mezrah, who own several local homes, provided all the documentation necessary for their daughter to meet eligibility requirements for sports at the school.

But school administrators had determined the family fell short of the requirements because it wasn't living in the home it owns within the Plant district. Administrators reached the conclusion after tracking the oldest daughter to and from school and searching utility records.

The decision denying eligibility was upheld by the FHSAA Sectional Appeals Committee.

The daughter, now a sophomore, was benched from participating in athletics. She ran cross country in the fall and had just started playing on the tennis team when an anonymous tip led school administrators to investigate.

“It is my opinion that the staff made interpretations on the board's policy that are not supported by the policy as written,” Griffin wrote. “Our policy requires that parents provide proof of Florida homestead exemption status, along with other documentation for registration in any Hillsborough County school.”

She said the district's investigation into where the family was living went “above and beyond the board's policy.”

Proof of residency is required under a new district policy designed to discourage athletes from transferring from one school to another for athletic purposes. The Mezrah daughter —­ her father asked that she not be named in this story — was entering high school for the first time, not transferring.

In an Aug. 22 email from FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing to general counsel Leonard Ireland, Dearing said he found Griffin's letter odd.

“I am a former school superintendent in Florida and I found it to be very unusual that a school board member would write a letter on official school district stationery in his/her official capacity of the school board chairwoman, and not courtesy copy any of the other school board members or the superintendent of schools,” Dearing wrote.

But Griffin, who says she has known the Mezrahs since they reached out to her in March, maintains she did nothing inappropriate and was expressing her own opinion — not the board's.

“I was advocating for my constituents,” she said Wednesday. “I feel I did so in an appropriate manner. I told the superintendent she needed to write a letter to FHSAA or I would. She didn't, so I did.”

Mike Mezrah said at the beginning of this school year, Hillsborough Superintendent MaryEllen Elia told him and his wife their daughters could attend Plant High but they would have to wait until February 2014 to participate in athletics.

FHSAA rules state that a student who falsifies information will be ineligible to play sports for one year.

The couple, who alternate their time between a farm and a home zoned for Plant High, decided Friday to pull both their girls out of the school. They are now taking Florida Virtual School classes at home. Mike Mezrah does not know if his daughters will attend Plant again.

“We are going to play it by ear,” he said. “We've heard great things about virtual school, but we are concerned with the social side.”

Mezrah said cross country offered his shy daughter a chance to find a group of friends.

“It opened her up,” he said. “They basically ruined my kid's life.”

Griffin said the board will meet at 2 p.m. on Sept. 24 for a workshop about the policy that details eligibility requirements for a student to play school sports.

“Nowhere in our policy does it state that the family has to spend so many hours a week in their home,” Griffin said.

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