Polk Rule Makes School Transfer Issue Moot
Thu. July 05, 2012 at 12:42 a.m. | By Solange Reyner
By SOLANGE REYNER | THE LEDGER
LAKELAND | When the Polk County School Board set a deadline for out-of-zone transfer requests for the fall semester, its members had no idea they were diminishing the impact of one of the most controversial provisions of a new state law governing the FHSAA and student-athlete eligibility.
During its regular meeting on May 22, the School Board set a June 15 deadline for students to apply for transfers without physically moving into new school zones. The move was intended to help the district comply with class-size requirements in the state constitution.
"I think we're just trying to have a reasonable transfer request date," School Board Chairwoman Hazel Sellers said during a phone interview Monday. "I didn't really consider it an athletics issue. With class size and everything we have to take into consideration, it's just the burden on the staff that we wanted to ease."
Added School Board member Dick Mullenax: "I thought about the decisions we had to make at the school. This rule will assist everybody in knowing what students will be where earlier."
The most controversial provision of House Bill 1403, which was sponsored by state Rep. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, and went into effect Sunday, allows students who make out-of-zone transfers in the middle of a school year to be immediately eligible for athletics, so long as the season hasn't started.
Previously, the Florida High School Athletic Association, Florida's governing body for high school sports, revoked an athlete's eligibility for one year if a move was made after the start of the school year unless the athlete met certain exemptions.
Stargel's bill stripped the FHSAA of that power and put the transfer approval process in the hands of the local school districts or private schools.
Among the law's other provisions:
Coaches can be suspended and have to pay fines if they are found guilty of recruiting violations.
Students cannot be punished for recruiting violations made by a coach unless they received impermissible benefits or falsified information during their enrollment.
Schools will have to compete at a higher classification if they are found guilty of a recruiting violation.
FHSAA investigators must carry FHSAA photo identification at all times, must conduct interviews only at certain times (Monday through Friday between 9 a.m. and 7 p.m.), must complete a Level 2 background screening and must allow parents to be present if their children are being interviewed.
FHSAA member schools may compete against nonmember schools in Florida.
The transfer rule, by far, has gotten the most attention because opponents say it will open the door for more recruiting in high school sports.
But Polk County largely made it a moot point — at least for the fall. And by setting early deadlines for out-of-zone transfers, the School Board has avoided what many critics of the law feared — a sharp rise in those types of transfers in the middle of an academic semester for athletic rather than academic reasons.
In years past, there was no deadline for out-of-zone transfer requests.
Throughout the 2011-12 school year, there were 3,124 requests in Polk high schools, and 3,031 were approved. Before June 15 of this year, there were 1,240 requests and all but one was approved.
Of course, students who transfer in the middle of a semester still may be eligible for participation in sports if they fall under one of four exceptions:
They make a full and complete move.
They relocate because the person they were living with dies, is imprisoned or is committed to a mental facility, or if the student is placed in a foster home.
They marry and move to a new residence.
They are reassigned by the district school board.
"You can move into the Kathleen zone five weeks after being at Lakeland, and if it's proven that you totally moved into that school zone, you become eligible," said Don Bridges, director of athletics for Polk County schools.
"You can be a starting linebacker at Lake Gibson and you move to Bartow, and on the fifth day, you can play at Bartow. The only thing you can't do is you can't do that and play if a state series (playoffs) has already started."
Those moves are something Bridges, and some opponents of the bill, don't agree with, especially if parents and athletes lie about it, a major reason that three Lakeland football players were not allowed to play during their senior years in 2011.
"I just don't see that happening, maybe it could," said Eric Robinson, the head boys' basketball coach at Auburndale. "If something like that did happen, it would be the craziest thing. And if we're saying, ‘Let's move because we don't like coach E,' it's a terrible rule."
Bridges said his office will be more stringent in certifying whether athletes have moved.
"You need to prove to me without a shadow of a doubt that you moved," Bridges said. "If that means checking their housing, so be it. Whatever it takes."
[ Solange Reyner can be reached at email@example.com 863-802-7526. ]