Legal review planned in dispute over separate playoffs; PIAA pledges 'open dialogue'

Erie Times-News (TNS)
  • An "equity summit" was held in State College on Tuesday.
  • The summit attracted 250 representatives from 151 of the state's 500 public school districts.
  • The group plans a legal review of a 1972 law that the PIAA says prevents separate playoff events.

Lawyers are poised to get involved in the debate over whether Pennsylvania should hold separate playoffs for high school sports.

Pittsburgh Central Catholic's J.J. Younger carries against Parkland during a recent PIAA football championship game. A group of public school officials would like to see separate playoff tournaments for nonboundary schools, such as Pittsburgh Central Catholic, and boundary schools, such as Parkland. AP FILE PHOTO

A group of more than 250 public school officials who met Tuesday in State College are set to seek a legal review of a 1972 state law that is at the center of the debate, said Millcreek Township School District Superintendent William Hall, who helped organize the four-hour session. It was called an "equity summit."

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association has cited the law as the key reason it cannot hold separate playoffs for "boundary" schools, or traditional public schools, and "nonboundary" schools, or private, parochial and charter schools. The 1972 mandates that PIAA membership must be open to public and nonpublic schools alike.

"We are looking to get an independent legal interpretation of the 1972 law," Hall said.

He said he and the other officials will explore which lawyers should review the law. Hall said he believes the law does nothing to preclude the PIAA from holding separate playoffs, as long as all the schools are members of the PIAA.

Hall said the group will meet again to refine a proposal, developed Tuesday, that would call for six classifications for some high school sports — four classifications for boundary schools and two classifications for nonboundary schools, with separate playoffs for the two groups.

Boundary schools can only take students from designated geographic areas. Nonboundary schools — the PIAA calls them "schools of choice" — can draw students from anywhere in the state and from out of state. Hall and other public school officials are arguing that nonboundary schools' ability to get students from an unlimited area gives them an unfair advantage over boundary schools. Hall said the system allows nonboundary schools to create "power teams."

PIAA statement: The PIAA said in a statement on Tuesday that its 32-member board favors "open dialogue" and is willing to listen to the concerns raised at Tuesday's meeting once the concerns are "forwarded to the board through the proper channels." The meeting did not include the PIAA or representatives from nonboundary schools.

Hall said the group has focused on separate playoffs for football and boys' and girls' basketball, but he said some at the meeting also raised the possibility of separate playoffs for all the sports the PIAA oversees. Hall said more than 250 representatives from 151 of the state's 500 public school districts, or 30.2 percent, attended the meeting, at a Ramada Inn. The number of registrants increased over the past several days.

In its statement on Tuesday, the PIAA said its board is composed of a wide variety of members who hear from different groups. PIAA member schools elect representatives to the PIAA's 12 district committees. The heads of the district committees are also members of the PIAA board, which includes representatives of other groups as well.

"The PIAA Board of Directors is made up of 32 diverse, elected representatives of all member schools and other constituencies, and represent each of the stakeholders present at today's meeting in State College," the PIAA said in the statement.

"It is grassroots representational democracy that has been effective for more than 100 years. Much of the information included in today's presentations has been discussed by the board, of which the overwhelming majority are public school employees.

"The board anticipates that issues pertaining to eligibility and competitive equity will be forwarded to the board through the proper channels, at which point they will be addressed. Open dialogue among all stakeholders will continue to be a strength of PIAA."

PIAA tries to address concerns: To address concerns over competitive balance, the PIAA board on Wednesday passed a series of amendments to its bylaws to tighten the rules for student transfers. As part of the changes, which represent its most sweeping action in years, the board also approved a competitive-balance formula.

Starting in 2020-21, the PIAA will apply the formula to determine whether football and girls and boys basketball teams must move up a class if they excel in the playoffs and have a high number of transfers from year to year.

Replacing PIAA still a possibility: Hall said the group that met Tuesday wants to cooperate with the PIAA on changes but that participants kept open the possibility of forming an organization to replace the PIAA, based in Mechanicsburg.

Replacing the PIAA "is not on the forefront right now," Hall said. "We want to work with the PIAA, but there was a lot of frustration in the room."

Hall said the separation of boundary and nonboundary schools would cut down on the number of transfers and reduce or eliminate the need for a competitive-balance formula.

Creation of separate playoffs, he said, represents "the easiest solution."

General Assembly's role: Hall said the group, once it gets the legal review, will continue to press for changes with the PIAA and the General Assembly Athletic Oversight Committee. The committee on June 18 held a hearing at which representatives of the PIAA and Catholic schools and charter schools testified. The committee said it plans to hold another hearing later this year to get testimony from public school officials.

"We will keep an eye on the General Assembly committee and get our day before them," Hall said.

No matter what happens, Hall said, another equity summit will occur soon.

"In order to keep this momentum, we need to meet again," he said.