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COLUMN: AHSAA getting heat from State House regarding public-private dispute

The current firestorm regarding transfers between public and private schools has centered on Madison Academy. The school’s athletic program has won numerous state titles including baseball. (Staff Photo)

By Mike Tankersley
Special to RRS
(March 19, 2017)

Ed. Note: Mike Tankersley is a former member of the staff of the Montgomery Advertiser and is now an editor and writer for the Arab Tribune. The following column ran this weekend in the Tribune.

There is another battle brewing in the state legislature. But it has nothing to do with gambling or your taxes.

Some state legislators tried to hold Alabama High School Association’s feet to the fire on Wednesday over an issue that is increasingly drawing the ire of a lot of coaches and fans in this state, and that is the assumed unfairness some private schools have over public schools when it comes to athletics.

That’s my read on what happened Wednesday, as reported by al.com.

Nothing as dramatic as House Bill 9 (HB9) is going to happen. Let’s get that straight right from the start.

HB9, sponsored by Rep. Ritchie Whorton (R-Owens Cross Roads), would require the AHSAA to adopt a rule that would separate public and private schools during championship play, according to the al.com report.

The AHSAA is going to fight to keep outside interference from dictating policy. The association has done that before – successfully – in the courts and through intense lobbying. And the AHSAA should fight for that authority.

Some coaches, like Arab High School’s Adam Gilbert, decry the basic unfairness of the current setup but don’t want legislators making the rules that govern their game.

But there seems to be more pressure on the AHSAA to do something about a problem that is only growing worse, especially in the smaller classifications.

To many, it is easier for private schools to “recruit” players than it is for public schools. But, it’s not as simple as that.

“The recruiting issue is at the heart of problem,” said Graham Dunn, who operates the website riverregionsports.com out of Montgomery and also hosts a daily sports talk radio show based in Tallassee (WTLS 106.5 FM/1300 AM).

Dunn has been covering sports in the Montgomery area for nearly 25 years, with a heavy emphasis on high school. He’s heard grumbling like this for most of that time.

“But you know what?” he added. “Recruiting goes on for public schools and everybody knows it.”

Gilbert, who emphasizes Arab doesn’t have a dog in this public vs. private fight, said AHSAA investigators have done a good job in recent years in policing public schools regarding recruiting.

But that’s the rub. The AHSAA can only do so much regarding private schools because they are just that - private. Zones are different, albeit that can be a detriment as well as an advantage.

A student living 30 miles away can enroll in the school with no issues as long as the requirements are met. He (she) can leave a public school and enroll in a private school with little or no issues.

Public school transfers typically get more scrutiny. Arab is an open enrollment school and can take in students from anywhere.

But to be eligible to play athletics, they have to meet certain transfer guidelines, like the family making a “bonafide” move to the new school’s area. If not, the student must sit out a calendar year beginning with the date of the transfer.

Arab isn’t affected so much by all of this because it doesn’t compete directly with any particular private school.

“We’ve never lost a player to a private school,” Gilbert said. “We’ve never lost a game in the playoffs to a private school.”

But you can be sure coaches up this way competing in 3A look at what Madison Academy has done and cringe.

(Ed. note: Madison Academy has won state championships at least once in all the major sports and swept what are considered the big three - football, boys basketball, baseball - in 2015. Rep. Whorton’s district is in Madison County.)

The real problem comes in the lower classifications, as Whorton pointed out.

Some private schools have created highly successful programs that dominate their public school counterparts, Whorton said, according to al.com.

“I see both sides of the argument,” Gilbert said. “All coaches want is an even playing field.”

Gilbert isn’t opposed to separating public and private AHSAA schools for the playoffs. But he doesn’t want legislators doing it and he doesn’t want the private schools in the AHSAA to leave.

AHSAA executive director Steve Savarese told house committee members they know there is a problem, and a task force has been meeting to find a solution.

Currently, private school enrollment is multiplied by a factor of 1.35 to determine the school’s classification, but Savarese said changing that factor, developed in 1999, is under consideration by the AHSAA.

Savarese said he couldn’t tell lawmakers all that is being considered, though, as the AHSAA board will vote on bylaw changes on April 12 that could have an effect on the direction the AHSAA takes on this issue.


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