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Pasco school board to review athletic transfer policy

The Pasco County School Board is taking another look at its athletic transfer policy, just one year after the policy was put into place in an effort to prevent students and coaches from circumventing recruiting rules.

Board Vice Chairman Steve Luikart asked for a workshop to discuss the policy next week after a mother and father complained Tuesday that their sons aren’t being allowed to play sports after transferring to Ridgewood High School from Fivay High.

“The policy is definitely not clear enough as it should be,” Luikart said.

The policy says student athletes must sit out a year after transferring from one high school to another. There is an appeal process where the student can go before an Athletic Transfer Participation Committee and make the case that the transfer was for legitimate reasons that had nothing to do with sports.

If the committee rules against the student, the student can appeal to the superintendent’s office.

Although Superintendent Kurt Browning agreed to schedule a board workshop for Aug. 19, he expressed reluctance to tinker with a policy that withstood a court challenge last school year after the parents of a soccer player filed a lawsuit against the school district. A circuit judge ruled that the school board has the authority to place limits on who is eligible to play sports.

“As a district, as a board, either we have a policy that regulates or governs students transferring from one school to the next to play sports, or we don’t have a policy at all,” Browning said.

The parents of the two boys who transferred to Ridgewood High told school board members that sports provide an outlet for students, helping to keep them focused and out of trouble. They said there is no clarity for parents about why the district makes the decisions it does regarding eligibility.

“I have always put my children in sports to keep them on that straight path,” the mother, Charlotte Jones of Port Richey, said.

Tom Wellington, the athletic director at Ridgewood High, told the board the policy was put into place for good reasons, but has led to some bad results, including the decision in this case. He said the process has too much subjectivity, and that when the boys went before the committee July 29 a committee member accused a Ridgewood coach of recruiting them “with no evidence, just a hunch.”

“I know there haven’t been a lot of kids who have been denied (athletic participation),” he said. “If a few kids are getting denied, it’s a few too many for something they can’t control.”

Phil Bell, the district’s supervisor of athletic programs, said even with the policy, it’s rare for a student to be denied eligibility. Last school year, 183 transfer students went before the committee seeking to gain eligibility, and the committee ruled in favor of 173, allowing them to play sports, he said.

Of the 10 who were denied, eight appealed to the superintendent’s office where their cases were heard by Ray Bonti, the district’s executive director of support services. Bonti overruled the committee in two cases, clearing the way for those students to play sports, but upheld the committee’s decision for the other six.

“For those six to be denied, there were probably significant reasons,” Bell said.

Without the policy, Bell said, when questions are raised about eligibility and recruiting, he would have to go to the school and investigate why the student had transferred. At that point, if it was determined there was a violation, the school could face the possibility of forfeiting games and incurring fines from the Florida High School Athletic Association.

In other action Tuesday, the school board approved the district’s Student Progression Plan after Browning dropped from it a proposal to eliminate high school valedictorians and salutatorians beginning with the class of 2018.

The issue had drawn numerous complaints. Browning told the board the district will revisit the idea next year, though.

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