The private-vs-public debate that has embroiled Pennsylvania high school sports for decades will take center stage in Harrisburg next week.
The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) Legislative Oversight Committee will hold a public hearing Monday to discuss the possibility of having separate state championships, the rules governing boundary and nonboundary schools and the procedure for the classification of scholastic sports teams in the state.
The hearing was announced by Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), chairman of the oversight committee.
For years, many officials, coaches, fans and athletes from public (boundary) schools have argued that the PIAA playoffs, especially in basketball and football, are heavily tilted in favor of private (nonboundary schools).
Private schools, despite representing just a fraction of the schools in the state, won seven of the 12 PIAA basketball championships in March. Add in football, and private schools won nine of the 18 championships.
The Diamond Johnson case: The debate reached a fever pitch when sophomore Diamond Johnson, who averaged 33 points per game while playing at a high school in Virginia, transferred to Neumann-Goretti in February. She played a large role in Neumann-Goretti’s state championship win.
The private schools are dominating the football and basketball playoffs at the state level. Going to six classifications was supposed to help alleviate the issue, but that has not been the case. Public schools have had a difficult time competing with the nonboundary schools, such as Archbishop Wood, which has played in six girls' basketball state finals since 2010.
In 1972, the state adopted legislation requiring that PIAA accept private schools into its membership. Before that, the Catholic schools had their own state organization.
Because of the law, nonboundary schools and boundary schools must compete against one another for state championships. This is where the boundary schools are screaming foul, but it would take an act of legislation to change the law.
Those coming to testify: Those offering testimony will be representatives from the PIAA, the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.
The PIAA will be represented by executive director Robert Lombardi and director of legal affairs Michael Solomon.
The Pennsylvania Catholic Conference will be represented by counsel Philip Murren and director of education Sean McAleer.
Mike Bariski, the athletic director of the Lincoln Park Performing Arts Charter School, will represent the charter schools.
PIAA proposals: The PIAA is already considering some moves in an effort to level the playing field.
There are multiple proposals before the PIAA board this summer meant to address competitive balance, transfers and schools that skirt the rules, Lombardi said recently, including the possible creation of a compliance committee with investigative duties.
“Some (schools) are playing a lot more fairly than others,” he said. “Of the ones that are not playing fairly, let's shine the light on them to prove that they're playing fairly.”
The PIAA administration won't take up the heated boundary vs. nonboundary debate and split member schools into separate playoffs as some requested, but the board is seeking other ways to ease competitive balance concerns, Lombardi said.
Among the proposals discussed recently were two other significant rule changes.
►Students who transfer high schools after ninth grade would be ineligible to participate in the postseason that year, unless granted a waiver.
►A competitive balance formula could change a team's classification based on postseason success and the number of transfers into that program.
The proposals were approved on a first-read basis by the PIAA board and could be enacted in July, if the board chooses.
“There are one million what-ifs,” Lombardi said. “We're going to have to go down the road slowly because I think we're going to answer a lot of what-ifs.”
The hearing: The oversight committee hearing will take place at 10:30 a.m. Monday at the G-50 Irvis Building, Capitol Complex, Harrisburg.
The hearing will be streamed live at GeneDiGirolamo.com.
Steve Bennett of the (Wilkes-Barre) Citizens Voice and Chris Harlan of the (Greensburg) Tribune Review contributed to this report through the TNS news service.