The debate over whether boundary and non-boundary schools should have separate playoff systems continued Wednesday in front of the PIAA Legislative Oversight Committee.
Testifying were administrators from the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, four public school superintendents and a charter school representative. Catholic school representatives spoke at the previous hearing.
This was the second hearing in the past three months, and the first since the PIAA rolled out stricter transfer rules and since representatives from more that 147 school districts met in State College to call for an overhaul of the playoff format to even the playing field between the different types of schools.
Wednesday’s hearing, held at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, focused around one major question: Does the PIAA have the authority itself to create two separate playoffs — one for public schools and one for private, charter and Catholic schools — or does the state legislature have to step in?
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Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, chairman of the oversight committee, told the Centre Daily Times over the phone that it was his understanding that when in 1972 Act 219 authorized private schools to participate with public schools in postseason competition, that was the law, and only legislative action could change it.
Lawrence Kelly, a New Castle-based lawyer who testified at the hearing on the behalf of the public school superintendents, had a different interpretation.
In Kelly’s interpretation of the law, legislators weren’t mandating combined playoffs, rather, they were just saying private schools that met the qualifications could be included.
“They eliminated that language (to participate in postseason athletic contests with public schools). ... If the legislature wanted private and public or boundary and non-boundary to participate in the same postseason tournament, they’d have left that language in there,” Kelly said before the committee.
With the questions raised by Kelly’s testimony, the oversight committee agreed to turn the question over the intent of the 1972 legislation over to the legal departments in the state House and Senate.
That, DiGirolamo explained, could entail going back over transcripts from the original meetings and debates on the floor and in committees.
“That being said,” DiGirolamo said, “there’s nothing to prohibit today any House or Senate member, if they would want to, from introducing a bill that would force the PIAA to separate the championships.”
But up to this point, he said, no one has seemed to take interest in it, and they’re almost at the end of their legislative cycle, so it’s unlikely for something to happen this year.
The other option discussed to help level the playing field was a “super class,” which PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi had previously mentioned. If a “super class” — a seventh classification based on enrollment, postseason success and number of transfers —was established, it wouldn’t happen until at least four years from now, Lombardi and President Jim Zack explained, to give them time to collect and process data to access the effectiveness of the new transfer rules.
The debate over whether boundary-restricted schools and schools able to take transfers should have separate postseasons has been ongoing for decades. The debate, however, has intensified in recent years, as some parochial and charter schools, mainly in the Philadelphia area, have gotten increasingly bigger and have dominated in the playoffs, most noticeably in basketball.
According to PIAA statistics, non-boundary schools have won 64 percent of championships in boys’ basketball from 2008-2018 school year, and 59 percent in girls’ basketball. For football, it’s split down the middle, with each winning 22.
The debate seemed to come to a head last year, when girls’ basketball standout Diamond Johnson transferred after already playing 19 games at her school in Hampton, Va., to Neumann-Goretti, a Catholic school in Philadelphia, just in time for the postseason. Averaging 16 points per game, Johnson helped Neumann-Goretti win four straight playoff games by 22 points or more and to its fourth consecutive state championship.
In response, the PIAA at a June meeting at the Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, passed sweeping transfer rules that would require any student in grades 10-12 who transfers schools to prove hardship or be required to sit out during that year’s postseason.
It also voted for a new competition balance formula for football and basketball, which would make teams with high enrollment, higher numbers of transfers and continued postseason success move up a classification.
The motion passed 26-2 after only its second committee reading. The PIAA typically requires three readings before taking a vote, but suspended protocol to get the new rules in place prior to the start of the 2018-19 school year.
“It’s a band-aid. It’s a deterrent but it doesn’t eliminate the problem,” Penns Valley Athletic Director Nate Althouse said in June. “I don’t think it’s a measure that will even the playing fields. If this is the solution, it’s not enough.”
Althouse joined representatives from all five of Centre County’s public school districts and nearly 150 others at the Equity Summit a few weeks later at the Ramada Conference Center in State College.
The summit was organized by public school officials interested in finding a way to even the playing field.
One of the proposals suggested at that meeting, according to Bald Eagle Area Athletic Director Doug Dyke, was to condense all boundary schools into classifications 1-4, and non-boundary in 5-6. In addition to creating separate playoffs, that proposal, Dyke said, would make districts tournaments more competitive for larger local public schools, such as State College, who now typically has to play about two games to win districts.
Coming up with proposals that would increase fair competition at all levels — not just state — is a way Dyke said those advocating for change — either with classifications or separate playoff systems — could get more buy-in from smaller schools, such as those in central Pennsylvania, not regularly competing with the large Philadelphia charter schools.
“If they want more credibility, I think they need to show they’ve gone above and beyond in generating support across the state,” he said.
If there’s one thing all the different options has in common, it’s that if there’s going to be a “super class” or separate playoff system, it’s not going to happen anytime soon.
DiGirolamo said that the earliest the state lawyers could come up with an interpretation of the intent of the 1972 law is by the end of the year, and four years is only the earliest Lombardi and Zack said a “super class” could take effect.
If the public school officials want change to happen quicker, DiGirolamo said that the recommendation of himself and Sen. Jay Costa is to work within the PIAA framework and try to get some of their suggestions and recommendations on the table to be debated by and voted on by the PIAA committee rather than the oversight committee.
When asked why they haven’t done that, Superintendents William Hall, of Millcreek Township, and Leonard Rich, of Laurel, said that although he has not had formal conversations with the PIAA, they’ve gotten the message passed down that they are not interested in taking up the issue.
“I think it’s a very good suggestion,” DiGirolamo said of formal talks between the superintendents and the PIAA. “They ought to give that a try.”
Althouse said that since the meeting in June, he hasn’t heard word from the organizers about any further steps or meetings, but anticipates that they will release some recommendations that can be done on the local level.
One thing he said that had been talked about was having the school districts pass resolutions — as Bellefonte did — in support of separate playoffs. Althouse said that as of right now, Penns Valley does not have plans to do so, but he said they probably would if that’s what was recommended by school leaders.
“In the meantime, if they feel this is something that’s going to be a long, drawn-out battle met with a lot of resistance by the PIAA, I’d be interested in researching what it takes to create a separate entity,” he said. “If we present a viable alternative, maybe then the PIAA would be willing to make changes. Maybe if there’s a threat other schools might level, maybe that’s what it’ll take to get them to sit down at the table.”