School zoning exceptions: A thorny issue


Published: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 2:20 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, July 10, 2013 at 2:20 p.m.

The Alachua County School Board is looking for a better way for students and schools to communicate about zoning exceptions.

Generally, public school students must attend the school they're zoned for, meaning their neighborhood school.

Parents or guardians can request a zoning exception for extenuating circumstances, but due to crowding in schools, the district has strict standards for approving requests.

But some try to circumvent the system by going out for teams or extracurricular activities.

When students make the team, they think they're entitled to attend schools outside their area, said Philoron Wright, assistant to the superintendent of community and schools for Alachua County Public Schools.

“(Students) need to understand that they first need to be in a zoned school before they participate,” Wright said. “There's no special entitlement when you make a team.”

A case of a student making the cheerleading team at a school different from the one she was zoned for led to School Board member Leanetta McNealy requesting a policy on the issue.

McNealy said in this case, the cheerleading team accepted the student, and the student's parent started paying team fees before the school verified the student's zoning exception status.

The exception request was denied, and the student wasn't allowed to attend the school whose cheerleading team she'd already been accepted into.

“That creates a problem,” McNealy said.

To avoid such disappointment, McNealy and the other board members want a better system for schools to verify students' zoning status before they're allowed to try out for sports teams and other tryout-based activities.

In the meantime, the district has asked team coaches to not accept students onto teams without first checking with the district zoning department.

The Alachua County schools' zoning exception application lists potentially acceptable reasons for making an exception:

— If a student moves after the beginning of his or her junior year of high school, the student may be allowed to stay at the same school.

— Parents who work at district schools may enroll their children in the same school.

— Students from neighboring counties may apply for admittance to Alachua County schools.

— Students may transfer into under-enrolled schools.

— Students may be allowed to stay at a school after zoning lines are redrawn.

— A medical or psychological need, with a doctor's note.

— Moving to a different neighborhood.

— A change in parent or guardian custody.

— Family hardship, which is assessed on an individual basis.

“The main reason that we deny exceptions is because of over-capacity at schools,” said Martha Dean, coordinator for the district zoning department.

Dean said the district usually gets 3,000 to 4,000 exception requests each year. Parents can request exceptions throughout the year.

Wright said in order to get approval, first there must be room in the school to absorb another student.

“If there's a real hardship and we can accommodate, provided there's space ... we will do that,” he said.

Denied requests can be appealed, and are evaluated individually based on any new information provided with the appeal.

Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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