Cross Country Runner Jimmy Liason Can Compete for Lake Wales — For Now
Thu. October 25, 2012 at 4:06 a.m. | By Rick Brown
By RICK BROWN
BARTOW | For two months, Jimmy Liason has assumed he would miss the entire cross country season.
Liason attended Lake Wales High School, part of a charter school system, his freshman and sophomore years. But this year, he transferred to Polk State Chain of Lakes Collegiate High School, a charter school that allows students to earn collegiate credits.
Because Polk State Collegiate doesn't offer athletics, Liason wanted to compete for Lake Wales, the school for which he says he's zoned.
But the School District denied the request. According to the district, Lake Wales is a charter school that doesn't have a zone, and Liason is instead zoned for Bartow High, more than 15 miles away. The district also says that FHSAA rules prohibit students at one charter school from participating in athletics at another charter school.
So the junior was caught up in "bureaucratic mess," according to his father, James.
On Wednesday, Liason won his biggest event yet, without even stepping on the cross country course.
At a hearing in the Polk County Circuit Court, Judge J. Michael McCarthy granted a temporary injunction to allow Liason to participate in athletics for Lake Wales immediately.
That injunction is expected to be finalized today, and Lake Wales would then decide whether Liason would be eligible to compete in Saturday's Polk County Championships.
"He'll be able to participate, but we'll carefully look at the provisions in the statute to make sure he's complied with all the other requirements," said lawyer Robin Gibson, who represented Lake Wales Charter School and Liason in this case, which was filed against the Polk County School Board.
Polk County Athletic Director Don Bridges said this is not a School District issue.
"It's a state of Florida rule, and it's up to the Florida High School Athletic Association to deal with it if he participates and is an illegal participant," Bridges said.
If Liason participates Saturday and McCarthy's ruling is later overturned, Lake Wales could be subjected to penalties including forfeitures and fines.
FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing said it is a state law that students cannot play for one charter school if attending another charter school.
According to rule 18.104.22.168 in the FHSAA handbook, "a student that attends a charter school that does not sponsor an interscholastic athletic program in one or more sports may participate in the sport or sports not sponsored by the charter school at either of the following schools: a) the public school the student would be assigned according to district school board attendance area policies, or b) the public school the student could attend according to controlled open enrollment provisions."
But the rules don't explicitly say that playing at another charter school is banned, and Liason's supporters point out that Liason resides within the Lake Wales zone and would attend the school if he were not at Collegiate..
"It's the best interest of the student," Lake Wales principal Donna Dunson said. "Take out this case, any student that chooses to go to Collegiate or any charter school and they live in Lake Wales, the rule of good judgment is they should be able to play with kids they've played with since kindergarten. It's not just this student, it's the right and choice of any student to play with what would be their zone school."
At issue is how charter schools are viewed by Florida and the district, and Lake Wales' rather unique situation.
Charter schools are publicly funded but operate independently of local school boards. Unlike most charters schools, Lake Wales' charter spells out a geographic zone that corresponds to its district-assigned zone before it became a charter school. Any students who live in that zone are guaranteed admission to the school.
Lake Wales Charter School Superintendent Jesse Jackson said he felt confident the school was looking at this case properly.
"We wouldn't feel as comfortable if this child lived in a different city or previously attended Lake Wales but lives in another city," Jackson said. "I wouldn't feel as comfortable advocating for that because that person has another community that they are a part of. In this case, the child lives in Lake Wales and has lived in Lake Wales all his life."
James Liason said that while the family is happy about the judge's ruling, they are looking into all options, including leaving Collegiate High at the end of the semester and returning to Lake Wales High.
"It's one hurdle. But then again, it's ridiculous that a little boy is being punished for academia," he said. "I've heard of and experienced situations where kids that play football, people jump through hoops. Here's a kid, a smart kid that wants to pursue a better education, but he gets punished."