PIAA, Pennsylvania high school in court battle over reclassification of girls' hoops team

(Wilkes-Barre) Citizens' Voice (TNS)
Dunmore battles Delone Catholic in the 2019 PIAA Class 3-A girls' basketball state title game. Delone won that game. Dunmore is now in a court battle fighting a PIAA reclassification ruling moving the Lady Bucks from 3-A to 4-A for the 2020-21 season.

Dunmore High School’s battle with the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association over its girls' basketball reclassification bounced across Washington Avenue in Scranton — at least for the time being.

The PIAA asked that the case be moved to federal court, rather than be heard in Lackawanna County Court of Common Pleas, where school district solicitor Matt Dempsey filed suit last month. Dunmore is fighting the decision by the state’s high school athletics governing body to move up the Lady Bucks from Class 3-A to 4-A for the upcoming high school season. Dunmore already lost two appeals within the PIAA.

The lawsuit challenged the competitive balance rule and the PIAA's application of points to Dunmore’s situation.

The policy considers student enrollment and the number of transfer students participating in a program. It also assigns points earned through participation in the postseason championship tournament under its newly enacted Competitive Classification Formula. Two girls transferred to Dunmore and played on the junior varsity squad. By virtue of the program's success — the team reached the state championship game in Class 3-A in 2019, losing to Delone Catholic — the Lady Bucks were assessed four points based on a success factor. Two more points were added for participating in the state quarterfinals this season, although the PIAA halted the playoffs before those games were played because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The six points, in addition to the two transfers, moved the team from Class 3-A to Class 4-A for the next two-year cycle, which begins with the 2020-21 school year. Delone, from the York-Adams League, is in the same situation and will play in 4-A next season. There has been no indication that Delone plans a similar lawsuit.

Dunmore lost its first appeal to the PIAA executive board and a second appeal to the PIAA Board of Control by a 23-6 vote May 20. Then, it filed for an injunction in the Court of Common Pleas.

“What happened was they removed it to federal court saying because we allege it was a constitutional violation, the case should be heard by the federal (court), and it was assigned to Judge Robert D. Mariani,” Dempsey explained. “I felt this was a state issue even though it has a potential constitutional issue, both a federal and state constitutional issue, it does not need to be decided by the federal government or the federal authorities.

“So, I filed a motion to remand it back to state court.”

A hearing on Dunmore's request for a preliminary injunction was originally scheduled for Aug. 25 before Judge James Gibbons, but Gibbons recused himself from the case, Dempsey said. The PIAA acted to move the case to U.S. Middle District Court, which is located across the street from the Lackawanna County Courthouse. Dunmore School District countered by asking Mariani to rule on moving the case back to the local level.

“We’re waiting for (Mariani) to rule on our motion for remand,” Dempsey said. “Normally, they do that by just a written decision. They don’t have arguments in federal court. We would just be waiting for him. He’s either going to rule in favor and remand it or he’s going to deny my motion and set up a hearing.

“Everything is in the air now.”