By Derek Belt
Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Jan. 27, 2008

SEATTLE — A toothless transfer policy for Seattle Public Schools allows some of the city’s best basketball programs to stockpile talent and turns coveted players into teenage free agents.

Aaron Dotson, the most recent high-profile example of a top-flight player jumping from one power program to another, transferred from Garfield High School to nearby Rainier Beach last year.

He was not forced to sit out the calendar year, as is required of any student who transfers schools for athletic purposes. Rainier Beach officials say Dotson did not transfer for athletic reasons and was therefore eligible to play. Garfield officials believe otherwise.

When filling out the paperwork to complete Dotson’s transfer, Garfield principal Ted Howard, after consulting with Bulldogs coach Dan Finkley and others, checked a box indicating he believed Dotson was transferring for athletic reasons.

Howard said it was all he could do to protest what he thought was an obvious attempt by Dotson to switch teams.

“I feel like I did my part,” Howard said. “Then it goes to Rainier Beach and they’re supposed to do an investigation.”

District policy states that students who transfer and wish to play sports without sitting out a year “should have the principal of the school to which the student has transferred attest that the transfer is not for athletic or disciplinary reasons.” In Dotson’s case, it was up to Rainier Beach principal Robert Gary Jr. to look into Howard’s claims that Dotson swapped schools solely for athletic purposes.

After speaking with Howard and Dotson’s family, Gary said he found no reason to believe the transfer was for athletics. He then held a formal discussion with Al Hairston, athletics coordinator for Seattle Public Schools, and signed off on the transfer.

“I investigated the charge and didn’t find any proof,” Gary said.

School district records indicate Dotson’s address changed Aug. 28, right before he transferred to Rainier Beach.

According to the district Web site, moving is one of three ways a student can gain eligibility immediately after transferring. District-initiated transfers and transfers for academic purposes are the others.

Howard said an investigation such as Gary’s, in which the receiving school has final say over the matter, is anything but objective.

“The school that took him investigates? Go figure,” Howard said. “It’s on the honor system. It should be a neutral party that comes in and does that.”

Hairston said the policy works because school principals are required to do an “open and honest investigation.” He also said his office would become involved in such a case only if an appeal were made. That appeal would likely come from the family of a student who is denied eligibility after transferring.

“Right, wrong or indifferent, that is the policy,” Hairston said.

Open-enrollment policy

Seattle Public Schools has an unusual open-enrollment policy that allows students to attend any school in the district. It was implemented in 1997 largely because each school offers a different slate of academic courses.

Open enrollment also gives students the right to switch schools, provided they aren’t doing so for athletic purposes or because they are recruited by a coach. Students are not prohibited from transferring schools solely for athletics, but they aren’t allowed to compete at the varsity level for one calendar year if they do so.

That differs from Washington Interscholastic Activities Association policy, which requires students transferring from one district to another to meet hardship requirements to become eligible to play sports their first year at a new school. Most districts in the state adhere to WIAA guidelines when dealing with transfers within a district as well, but they are not required to. Seattle Public Schools, because of its open-enrollment policy, does not follow WIAA transfer guidelines.

Dotson, a junior who briefly attended Franklin his freshman year before switching to Garfield, is one of hundreds of students who transferred within the Seattle Public Schools system last year. Rainier Beach has the lowest enrollment of any high school in the district and is eager to accept transfer students. Often there is a waiting list to get into bigger schools such as Ballard, Franklin and Ingraham, making it more difficult for students — not just athletes — to transfer into one of those schools.

Switching sides

Dotson, a 6-foot-4 guard with long arms and a soft outside shot, averaged a team-high 18.6 points per game as a sophomore last year, guiding Garfield to the state tournament for the first time since 2002. The future looked bright for the rebuilding Bulldogs, especially with prized incoming freshman Tony Wroten Jr. set to join the team.

Finkley, the Garfield coach, said that outlook changed in June during the Quaker Summer Slam at Franklin High, during which Dotson played just one game with Garfield before transferring to Rainier Beach, a perennial state title contender. The move did not go unnoticed.

“I was baffled, but it didn’t surprise me,” said Finkley, who said Dotson’s father approached him after the game — a blowout loss to Rainier Beach — to say that his son was leaving the team. “He never said why. He just said it wasn’t going to work.”

A few days later, Garfield squared off against Rainier Beach again. Dotson was in uniform for the Vikings, and has been ever since.

“Right after his dad told me (he was leaving), he went right and started playing for them,” Finkley said. “Our kids were confused and it kind of became personal. Our kids are still confused.”

Stockpiling talent

Rainier Beach, which has won three state championships since 1998, has greeted four top-level transfers in the past two years alone. Dotson and Chief Sealth transfer Nyandigisi Moikobu came from within the district during the summer. Former Renton guard Jaamon Echols also is new to the Vikings this season. Fresno State-bound senior Reggie Moore left O’Dea for Rainier Beach before the 2006-07 school year. He was granted a hardship appeal after his family moved to the Rainier Beach neighborhood to provide 24-hour care for his ill grandfather.

DeAngelo Jones, a former Vikings star now at New Mexico State, played two years at Rainier Beach after transferring from Kennedy in November 2005 for personal reasons. A WIAA district panel initially ruled he was not eligible for the 2005-06 season, but a WIAA hearing officer overturned that decision, allowing Jones to play for the Vikings.

According to published reports, Moikobu lives close to the Rainier Beach campus and transferred because school bus service from his neighborhood to West Seattle was discontinued. Moikobu would have had to ride a Metro bus to school this year if he had continued to attend Chief Sealth.

Rainier Beach athletic director Dan Jurdy said Dotson was granted eligibility because he moved into the school’s attendance zone, but Hairston said Dotson didn’t have to move to become eligible. He said open enrollment allows students’ eligibility to follow them from one school to another.

Because Dotson was eligible to play sports at Garfield, Hairston said, he is eligible to play at Rainier Beach or any other school as long as he is not found to have transferred solely for athletic reasons. Howard questions whether Dotson’s move into Rainer Beach’s attendance zone was legitimate.

“Maybe. That’s the part I don’t know,” Howard said. “His sister is still attending Garfield, and they have the same address they did last year. If Garfield is so bad, why is his freshman sister still going here?”

Adult influence

Howard said Dotson’s family may have had contact with Rainier Beach coaches before filing the transfer request, implying the then-sophomore was recruited by the Vikings. Rainier Beach coach Mike Bethea, who said he is tired of dealing with recruiting accusations simply because of his program’s high profile, adamantly denied having any contact with Dotson or his family before the transfer.

“The only time I ever talked to Aaron’s dad was when he was a freshman at Franklin and was getting ready to go to Garfield,” Bethea said. “He said, ‘Hey Mike, what do you think about Garfield’s program?’ And I said it was a pretty good program. He just wanted to introduce himself.”

Finkley, who also lost Dominic Ballard after the 6-4 sophomore transferred from O’Dea to Garfield and then back to O’Dea recently, said star players are treated like NBA free agents. Open enrollment does little to curb the issue, he said.

“It’s kind of out of control,” Finkley said. “Most of the time it’s the parents. As soon as they sense a negative vibe, they want to jump ship.”

Francis Williams, a former Rainier Beach coach who guided the Vikings to their first state title in 1988 and resigned midway through the 1994 season because he was fed up with parents and personal attacks, said players usually get too much attention — good and bad — when they decide to transfer schools.

“A lot of the time the spotlight is put on the kid when it should be on the parents,” Williams said. “If my kid transfers, he can’t do that without my blessing. But my name’s not going to end up in the paper, his will. A lot of these parents are overzealous and want what’s best for them and not their kids.”

Williams has been involved with Seattle’s youth basketball program for 13 years and still follows the high school game closely. He supports open enrollment and the district’s transfer policies — but only as long as nobody is breaking or bending the rules.

“If they’re within the rule book and the guidelines as they’re set forth, I say let them go wherever,” Williams said. “I tried not to get too upset about transfers, but most of the time we were losing them. It hits closer to home when you lose a player. It stings a little more.”

Widespread practice

Rainier Beach isn’t the only school affected by transfers, and the Vikings aren’t just gaining them. Two years ago, Michael Crudup left Rainier Beach for Cleveland and Sterling Carter traded in his Vikings colors for the green and black of Franklin.

Notable transfers between districts from the past year include Colton Christian, who went from O’Dea to Bellevue, and DeAngelo Casto, one of the state’s top college prospects, who left Ferris of Spokane for Franklin in June only to return to Ferris a few months later.

Aaron Bright also turned heads when he left Issaquah for Bellevue after the start of the school year.

Issaquah officials weren’t shy about voicing their displeasure, as Bright, a 5-10 sophomore who was second on the team in scoring as a freshman, reportedly played summer ball with several Bellevue players. His family moved to Bellevue, and he was not forced to sit out a year.

“It may be legal on paper,” Issaquah athletic director Mike Bailey said, “but it’s not right.”

Garfield officials sympathize. They say the Seattle Public Schools system is in a tough position because of open enrollment. Williams said people should learn to live with it, as things aren’t likely to change any time soon.

“The administrators are stretched to the limits already, and athletics aren’t the main reason they’re there,” Williams said. “These kids are student-athletes and the student part comes first.”

‘It’s frustrating’

Fresh off last year’s state tournament appearance, Finkley was giddy about teaming Dotson with Wroten, one of the highest-rated freshman players in the country and the Bulldogs’ leading scorer this year at 19.9 points per game. When Dotson said goodbye, however, Finkley was left to wonder what could have been.

“If we keep Aaron Dotson, if we keep Dominic Ballard, maybe we are one of the top 10 teams in the state at this time,” Finkley said. “That’s not a slap on the kids I have because they’re working their butts off, but you never know what happens if we keep both of those guys.”

Garfield beat fourth-ranked Federal Way 83-75 at the King Holiday Hoopfest on Jan. 21 and slipped past Juanita 63-55 the following night for its fourth consecutive win. The Bulldogs, who are 11-5 overall and in second place in the KingCo 4A Lake Division, got 21 points from Wroten, who has scored in double figures in all 16 games this season.

At Rainier Beach on Thursday, Dotson scored 11 points to help lead the Vikings to a 89-48 thrashing of Metro League rival Nathan Hale. Rainier Beach is 16-1 overall and is the state’s top-ranked team in 3A. Its only loss was in overtime to Franklin, the second-ranked squad in 4A.

“It’s frustrating, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” Finkley said of losing talented players. “I have no control over any of these kids in regard to whether they stay at Garfield or leave Garfield. I just coach the kids that do want to be here.”

The only problem with that, he said, is that there’s no telling how long they’ll stick around.