By Ryan S. Clark
Ever since Terry Leabo Jr. left the Fargo school system and entered Moorhead Senior High School as a freshman 2½ years ago, questions of athletics ineligibility have followed.
The 17-year-old’s parents continue to live in north Fargo, as does a younger sister who attends school in Fargo.
In late fall 2008, Leabo’s parents, Terry Leabo Sr. and Denise Leabo, transferred legal guardianship of their then-15-year-old son to their then-21-year-old daughter, Victoria, who lives in Moorhead.
Doing so allowed Leabo Jr. to attend school in Moorhead and be eligible for extra-curricular activities there.
The now-junior is a standout player for the Moorhead Spuds hockey team, a perennial Minnesota power that routinely sees players recruited for top college teams. Leabo Jr. has also been a starter on the Spuds varsity soccer team.
Minnesota courts allow parents from any state to transfer guardianship of a child to other family members in the state so long as the family feels it’s in the best interest of the child.
Victoria Leabo, legal guardian of Leabo Jr., says the boy’s parents wanted him to be able to attend another school because they were concerned he was being negatively influenced by kids he was hanging out with in north Fargo.
But that didn’t stop others from questioning if the transfer of legal guardianship was proper and could negatively affect others, including fellow student-athletes or Moorhead taxpayers.
Last May, a group of self-described “concerned Moorhead taxpayers” and Moorhead High School athletics boosters retained an attorney to push the Clay County district attorney and Moorhead Public School District to investigate the matter and settle the eligibility question once and for all.
The attorney’s letter was anonymously sent to The Forum in January.
One side of the story
Fargo attorney Jonathan Ruth’s three-page letter to Moorhead Schools Superintendent Lynne Kovash on May 10, 2010, lays out his unnamed clients’ ultimatum:
Either Moorhead Schools and/or Clay County determine if the guardianship is lawful in the district or his clients will take their allegations and concerns to the Minnesota State High School League, which governs and can investigate extracurricular eligibility concerns.
“The singular concern of the group of individuals I represent is they believe there is sufficient practical evidence at this time to warrant an investigation” as to whether “Terry Leabo Jr. is attending MHS and participating in extracurricular activities without meeting the legal requirements for residency and attendance,” Ruth wrote.
He goes on to state how a student could legally attend a Minnesota school, which includes:
• a parent establishing lawful residency
• paying tuition in excess of $6,600 a year
• through a court order related to child custody or protection
• through a lawful guardianship with a Minnesota resident
Ruth says the first three provisions don’t apply in the Leabo case because the parents don’t live in Minnesota, tuition is not being paid for Leabo Jr. and there is no court order related to child custody or protection.
His clients concede that legal guardianship with a Minnesota resident was established, but that the Leabos may not be meeting the requirements of that legal guardianship.
The letter states “students talk among themselves frequently.”
Ruth’s letter goes on to allege certain arrangements that his clients believe to be inconsistent with legal residency in Minnesota.
Among the allegations:
• “Terry Leabo Jr. is believed to have a North Dakota driver’s license and was believed to be driving a car in 9th grade (not permissible if he was actually a Minnesota resident).”
• “Terry Leabo Jr. drives a North Dakota-licensed vehicle.”
• “Terry Leabo Jr. drives to his parents’ home in Fargo after school and sleeps in his bedroom in his parents’ home.”
• “Terry Leabo Jr. has invited friends to sleep over at his parents’ home in Fargo.”
The Forum could not verify any of these allegations and driver’s licenses in both states are not considered public records that can be reviewed.
Ruth said his clients approached him to write Kovash the letter for these main reasons:
• “They do not want another team, school or sanctioning body to learn of a potentially ineligible student participating in athletic programs for MHS and consequently see sanctions, penalties and probationary actions levied against an entire MHS athletic team, thereby preventing all eligible players on that team from participating in postseason events.”
• “They do not believe it is fair or [proper] for a student” who may not be a legal resident “to be allowed to attend Moorhead public school while actual taxpayers subsidize that student’s education.”
Ruth goes on to write that if Leabo Jr. attends all four years at Moorhead High, “Moorhead Public Schools will have potentially been deprived of $26,644 in outof-state tuition revenues from the Leabos. For a school system that is consistently facing budget deficits, this amount of potential lost revenue for one child is substantial.”
Ruth told The Forum last month that Superintendent Kovash replied to him last summer, saying the school district had investigated the matter and that Leabo Jr. was a legal student.
Ruth said he passed along that reply to his clients and he doesn’t know if they pursued the matter further. If they did, he did not represent them for that.
At The Forum’s request, Ruth sent his clients a letter from the newspaper last month seeking interviews or more information. The Forum received no replies to that request and doesn’t know who Ruth represented when writing the school district and copying the letter to the Clay County attorney and IRS.
“Those parents wanted to make it clear they had no issues with the coach, the program or the student,” Ruth told The Forum. “From what I gathered, he’s a nice kid. They were worried that the program would be in jeopardy.”
Another side of the story
Most representatives of the Moorhead School District and high school say they are restricted from talking about the specific case because of student privacy laws.
They all say Leabo Jr. is a legal resident and fully eligible to participate in activities.
“We take residency issues very seriously,” said Moorhead Assistant Superintendent Wayne A. Kazmierczak. “And any time we are made aware of a situation, we investigate it thoroughly. That is not referring to any particular situation.”
Moorhead Athletic Director Don Hulbert says he has fielded many questions over the past couple years regarding Leabo Jr., and he considers it “old news.”
“When he came to this district as a ninth-grader, he did it under MSHSL guidelines,” Hulbert said. “He’s not the first kid to transfer and he is not the last.”
Craig Perry, associate director of the MSHSL, said eligibility, in regards to freshman transfers, is about the circumstances.
“If a student has attended the ninth grade (in another state) and has attended school (in Minnesota), the provisions are applied,” Perry said. “That means, depending on the circumstance, they may or may not be eligible.”
He said eligibility is handled at the school level.
“The only time the league works with a guardianship case is if the school’s administration has contacted us for clarity,” Perry said. “We’re used for consulting.”
He said he could not discuss the Leabo case in particular because of student privacy laws.
Leabo Jr.’s sister, Victoria, told The Forum that while her brother was attending Fargo schools, he started hanging “with the wrong crowd.”
That prompted conversations with her parents about moving her brother to Moorhead.
Andy Lehner, a St. Paul-based attorney who routinely deals with Minnesota guardianship cases, said they can exist for a variety of reasons and transfers are fairly common among family members.
Mostly he says they are used for incapacitated individuals not capable of making their own decisions or when parents must leave the children behind with others for a period of time.
“If the parent of a minor child is not able to provide care, whether it is financial or the parents are in prison, the court can grant authority,” Lehner said. “In an instance where those things are not present, a guardianship can happen if a parent agrees to relinquish control.”
Victoria Leabo says her brother’s move to Moorhead has been good for him.
“From the move, I would say he has just blossomed,” she said. “At North, he was very quiet and kept to himself and we as a family felt that when he moved to Moorhead, he became more outgoing, just talkative and just changed.”
Sports were one of the avenues that Leabo Jr. used in adapting at Moorhead, the-now-23-year-old sister said of her brother.
Leabo Jr. was added to the varsity soccer team midway through his sophomore year, said Moorhead boys soccer coach Lance Hansen.
“I knew that he was cleared to play for me,” Hansen said.
Leabo Jr. made the varsity hockey team as a sophomore. He played in 17 regular-season games and three playoff games, including last season’s Minnesota Class 2A, Section 8 finals loss to Roseau.
Victoria Leabo said their living situation in Moorhead is good and has worked out well. She said her brother does visit his parents quite a bit, especially on the weekends.
“He sees them all the time,” Victoria Leabo said. “When he’s not with Mom and Dad, he feels like he gets away with more and he really doesn’t.”
The Forum contacted Terry Leabo Sr. on Jan. 24, asking to interview him for this story and wondering if he had ever seen the letter from Ruth, the lawyer.
Leabo Sr. agreed to speak with The Forum later that week. He called The Forum an hour later and said he wanted his attorney present during the interview.
Leabo Sr. said he had never seen Ruth’s letter and was excited to clear up questions he knew existed regarding his son’s guardianship arrangement and eligibility.
Two days later, when The Forum was trying to finalize the time and place of that interview, Leabo Sr. said:
“I think you should speak with my daughter, Victoria. She is his legal guardian.”
The Forum first spoke with Victoria Leabo on Jan. 24.
The Forum called Victoria Leabo again on Jan. 31 for some follow-up questions. She returned the voice mail message an hour later, saying she did not want to provide further comment after receiving advice from the Moorhead School District and Moorhead hockey coach Dave Morinville.
Morinville said he did talk to Victoria Leabo “but I did not say anything to that effect. I would not say anything to her like that.”
Following a Jan. 18 hockey game, Morinville introduced Leabo Jr. to The Forum for a postgame interview. Morinville stated Leabo Sr. played for him in the past and that the Leabo family moved over to Moorhead years ago.
Morinville days later was asked by The Forum if he knew Leabo Jr.’s parents lived in Fargo and that his sister, his guardian, lived in Moorhead.
“When he came over as a ninth-grader, I did not know the whole situation,” Morinville said.
The Leabos are a hockey family.
Leabo Sr. created the Grizzlies, a Fargo-based traveling team comprised of second- and thirdgraders that played a 64-game schedule.
He also coached the Angels, a pee-wee hockey team that won two North Dakota Amateur Hockey Association Championships.
Leabo Sr. coached his son on both teams. Victoria Leabo played at Fargo North and so does her 15-year-old sister.
Leabo Sr. also played hockey at Fargo North, where Morinville was an assistant coach in the late 1970s.
Morinville said he was never told in advance that Leabo Jr. was moving to Moorhead.
“Next thing you know I hear Terry Jr. is playing soccer and it is like, ‘Oh, here he is, ’” Morinville said.
Sports | Feb. 6, 2011 | Page D1, D8
(may require an online subscription or archive access to view.)