No major outcry over Dungy assignment

The reaction is mixed with some angry and others sympathetic.

Published January 17, 2008

TAMPA -- The Lyonnais family has sacrificed for Plant High School.

This year, the family moved from a four-bedroom to a three-bedroom house to live within the boundaries of the highly rated school. And the rent jumped an additional $450 per month.

So Helen Lyonnais was stunned to hear how the son of Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis Colts coach, was able to enroll at the school last week.

Eric Dungy said he is there on a special assignment, the only way a student could get into a crowded school like Plant without moving to the neighborhood. The district limits the option to hardship cases.

"I was disappointed in the system," said Lyonnais, who quit her job as a school health assistant to help her three girls transition into separate new schools. "They stress education ... but they're not showing it. Hands down, it's favoritism."

Few topics touch off parental emotions like special assignments, particularly to South Tampa's Plant High, one of Hillsborough's most sought-after schools. Almost three-fifths of applicants to the school this year were denied.

Hillsborough School Board members didn't get a lot of calls Wednesday about the Dungy assignment after it was aired in the local media. But people certainly were talking.

Some were angered, others sympathetic.

"Given what we know of the family history, they might have legitimate reasons," said Jenny Carey, who lives in the Plant boundaries.

She was referring to Eric Dungy's brother, James, who attended Gaither High School in northern Hillsborough before committing suicide in 2005. The Dungy family's home in Avila is zoned for Gaither.

"If I had a child that was at a school and passed away, it might be hard to go back every day," Carey said. "If that's the reason (for the special assignment), I can empathize."

School officials could not comment on whether the special assignment had anything to do with James, who played football for Gaither in 2003-04 before moving to Indianapolis with his father. Information about special assignments is confidential.

Eric Dungy, who expects to play football at Plant, did not know the reason behind his special assignment to the school. Parents Tony and Lauren Dungy could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Hillsborough school officials have tried in recent years to cut back on special assignments, now called choice hardship. They say the standards are very stringent. Examples include a medical issue, court orders and military transitioning.

"I quite often use the term catastrophic or profound or severe," said Bill Person, who oversees student placement in Hillsborough, citing as an example a child with cancer whose parent needs to be close during work hours.

Person acknowledged that the district's definition of hardship has changed over time. Officials used to consider after-school care. But the practice at the time was to fill schools beyond capacity, Person said, and now they no longer have that luxury. These days the district is struggling to meet class size limits being imposed statewide.

Not that special assignment decisions were ever easy. Carol Kurdell, Hillsborough's longest-serving School Board member, said parents always want what they think is best for their child.

"Those special assignment issues are always very difficult to deal with because everybody that comes forward usually has a very valid reason," she said.


Fast facts: Most popular high schools for special assignments