Pennsylvania public schools ponder possibility of replacing PIAA over playoff issue

Erie Times-News (TNS)
  • Officials from at least 75 public schools are set to meet in State College on Tuesday, July 24.
  • At that time, officials will discuss "the current inequity" in the PIAA playoff system.
  • A potential topic of discussion at the meeting may be the replacement of the PIAA.

The call for separate playoffs for some high school sports in Pennsylvania has taken on another dimension — the possibility of replacing the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi.

Superintendents and other officials from at least 75 public school districts from across the state are scheduled to meet in State College on Tuesday, July 24, to discuss "the current inequity" in the playoff system, which the PIAA now operates, according to an email that schools received on Tuesday about the meeting.

Another potential topic of discussion, according to the email, is "the possible formation of a separate entity to provide a fair, equitable playing field for all students and schools in Pennsylvania if appropriate action is not taken by either the PIAA or through legislation."

Separate playoffs at center of debate: At the center of the debate is a proposal for separate playoffs in football and girls and boys basketball to address what the public schools see as a competitive advantage for private and parochial schools.

The separate playoffs would be for "boundary" schools, or traditional public schools that must draw students from specific geographic regions, and "non-boundary" schools, or private, parochial and charter schools, whose students can come from anywhere in the state and even out of state.

In the state basketball championships in March, seven of the 12 titlists were non-boundary schools. Non-boundary schools won two of the six PIAA football championships in 2017.

Coming up with a plan: The officials who attend the July 24 meeting intend to put together a plan to present to the PIAA and the Pennsylvania General Assembly's Athletic Oversight Committee, which has been reviewing the request for changes and held a hearing in Harrisburg on June 18.

"We want to keep the conversation going across the state," said William Hall, superintendent of the 6,800-student Millcreek Township School District, who said he will attend the July 24 meeting.

He said he and other public school officials have discussed "nothing significant" in how the PIAA would be replaced. But he said the possibility of creating another organization will remain an option if the public school officials "don't see change or progress" regarding their concerns.

Hall, who has been leading the call for a separate playoff system among Erie County's 13 school districts, said he and other public school officials met in Monroeville on Monday and decided to hold the larger meeting on July 24.

Significant event: The event will be significant in the number of participants, already expected to be about 200 people from 75 of the state's 500 school districts, said one of the organizers, Stuart Albaugh, superintendent of the 275-student Harmony Area School District in Westover, in Clearfield County.

"We don't want to go to the PIAA just with a problem," Albaugh said. "We want to go to with some solutions to consider, some options."

On July 24, according to the email, participants also will consider "the possibility and logistics of creating separate state championships for boundary and non-boundary schools" as well as "the leadership of the PIAA."

Creating separate playoffs won't be easy: Persuading the PIAA and the Athletic Oversight Committee to endorse separate playoffs is likely to be as difficult as getting the PIAA to step aside for a new entity. PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi could not be reached for comment on Wednesday, but said at the June 18 hearing that the PIAA is addressing concerns about competitiveness by introducing or proposing a raft of amendments to tighten its rules for student transfers.

Lombardi also said the PIAA believes that separate playoffs would be unlawful under the 1972 state law that required the PIAA to expand its membership to include nonpublic schools.

At the June 18 hearing, none of the six members of the Athletic Oversight Committee raised the possibility of separate playoffs. The committee heard from representatives of Catholic schools and charter schools, and the committee said it would hold another hearing for representatives of public schools. That hearing will not occur in the summer, but could be scheduled for sometime in the fall, the office of the Athletic Oversight Committee chairman, Rep. Gene DiGirolamo, a Republican from Bucks County, said on Wednesday.

At hearing, PIAA officials say changes coming

The June 18 testimony on behalf of Catholic schools came from the education director of the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, Sean McAleer, who said the conference agrees with the PIAA's changes or proposed changes for transfers. But he called the debate between boundary and non-boundary schools a "fiction" because public school students can pay tuition to enroll in another public school district and play sports. The administration of Cathedral Preparatory School and Villa Maria Academy, both athletic powerhouses in Erie, has raised the same objection.

"Time to act:" In the Millcreek School District, Superintendent Hall said the practice of bringing in tuition-paying students to play sports is prohibited, and he said the other school districts in Erie County have similar policies.

On Wednesday, Hall said a key reason for having the July 24 meeting is to build on a debate that has already reached Harrisburg. The email announcing the meeting echoed that sentiment.

"Momentum on the issue is high," according to the email, "and it is time to act."

Ed Palattella can be reached at 870-1813 or by email. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNpalattella.