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State legislators to examine 1972 Pennsylvania law at center of public vs. private debate

(Greensburg) Tribune-Review (TNS)

State legislation written four decades ago has become a point of contention in the public vs. private school debate, so some current lawmakers decided Wednesday to figure out exactly what their predecessors were thinking.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi.

The argument involves House Bill 2104, a 17-word directive written in 1972 that reads: Private schools shall be permitted, if otherwise qualified, to be members of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The legislators will ask their lawyers to dig into the state archives.

“A lot of times you can go back and get a transcript of the (legislative) debate, whether it was in committee, on the house floor or the senate floor,” said state Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R-Bucks), chairman of the State Athletic Oversight Committee. “A lot of times legislative intent is stated during the debate, so that would be important. I’m not sure if we can go back that far or not, but I’m going to find out.”

Wednesday meeting: The oversight committee met Wednesday at Heinz Field for a hearing that lasted more than two hours.

The committee heard from public school administrators who want the PIAA to create separate playoffs for so-called boundary and non-boundary schools, but PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi has said repeatedly that the legislation from 1972 mandates private schools be treated equally to public schools.

Therefore, schools cannot be separated by type, Lombardi said, but the public school administrators disagree with that interpretation.

Representatives from each side testified Wednesday.

“I think the legal department in the house and the senate, together with Legislative Reference Bureau, can tell us what that law and that language meant,” said DiGirolamo, who sides with the PIAA stance that public and private schools cannot be separated.

The committee: Along with DiGirolamo, the oversight committee includes state Reps. Rob Matzie (D-Beaver) and Mike Reese (D-Westmoreland), and state Sens. Jay Costa (R-Allegheny) and Scott Martin (R-Lancaster).

The committee wasn’t prepared to address the issue with new legislation but agreed the old law needed clarity.

“I think everybody interprets it differently,” said Matzie, noting that high school education has changed much since the legislation was written. “We didn’t have charter schools in 1972, so we need to look at that law and potentially open it up, if for no other reason than to add some definitions to determine what that intent is. I’m happy to see that the rest of the committee understands and agrees with that. We can look at it legally now.”

Welcome decision: That was a welcome decision for the public school administrators. Laurel superintendent Leonard Rich, Millcreek superintendent Bill Hall, Harmony superintendent Stuart Albaugh and New Castle attorney Larry Kelly spoke in favor of separate playoffs.

“Our voices were heard by people who can make a difference,” Rich said, “and they were sympathetic to what we had to say. I think this was a step forward in the movement toward reform.”

Lincoln Park athletic director Mike Bariski also testified Wednesday on behalf of charter schools.

This hearing came three months after the committee heard boundary/non-boundary testimony in June from Lombardi, as well as Catholic and charter school representatives, who opposed separate playoffs. Lombardi testified again Wednesday along with PIAA president James Zack and director of legal affairs Michael Solomon.

Rule changes: The PIAA explained the rule changes it has made in recent years to address competitive inequality — most focused on transfer rules. Costa criticized the PIAA for rushing new rules into place without the usual three-vote process, but Lombardi defended the decision, insisting they needed to be implemented before fall sports started.

Among the other testimony, Kelly detailed to the committee how House Bill 2104 evolved through several edits. He noted how the words “with public schools” were removed from an earlier version that said: “Private schools shall be permitted, if qualified, to participate in post season athletic contests with public schools.”

“In the final draft, it was taken out,” Rich said. “So that clearly denotes there was not support for that. So now they’re going to go dig, they’re going to go back in transcripts and look for intent.”

Chris Harlan is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at or via Twitter @CHarlan_Trib.