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House bill aims to do away with FHSAA

The bill's sponsor says the athletics group lacks diversity, and wants the state Board of Education to take over its duties.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 26, 2003

An influential South Florida lawmaker wants to do away with the association that has overseen high school athletics in Florida for 83 years.

Rep. Ralph Arza, R-Hialeah, says there isn't enough Hispanic representation in the Florida High School Activities Association. Since 1997, all but two members of FHSAA's board of directors have been white. The remedy, says the Cuban-American lawmaker, is to get rid of the association and let the Florida Department of Education do the job.

"It's abolishing them," said Arza, who has filed a bill to accomplish that end. "You're done. You're finished. Absolutely."

Arza has some unpleasant history with the association. When he was a football coach at Miami High School in 1989, the team had to forfeit its season because the FHSAA determined one of its players was too old. In 1998, the school was stripped of a basketball state championship for recruiting violations. A former FHSAA commissioner called that case "one of the most, if not the most, blatant violations of FHSAA rules against recruiting that I have encountered."

Arza, who still teaches at Miami High, said his bill is not a vendetta. "If you're trying to make this personal," he said, "it really is not."

Last year, Arza's brother-in-law, Gus Barrera, a Dade County School Board member, was considered for an FHSAA board position. That would have brought Hispanic representation.

But the position was given to Tom Greer of St. Cloud, who is white. Arza was told his brother-in-law didn't get the position because the Dade County School Board had not paid its dues to the Florida School Board Association, the group making the appointment. "Not paying dues on time? I think that's a pretty lame excuse," Arza said.

Arza's bill might not spell the end of the nonprofit organization, which sets rules for conduct and eligibility for athletic teams at 668 public and private schools in Florida. But it could set the stage for the creation of a new entity to take the FHSAA's place.

"I think you're always concerned when any legislator is upset with you," said FHSAA spokesman Jack Watford. "All the bill would do is remove from law any reference to us . . . but (it) could open the door to other things. Anything could happen -- they could amend the bill to move us to Anchorage."

On Monday, Arza's bill was approved 6-1 by the House General Education Subcommittee. Rep. Heather Fiorentino, R-New Port Richey, cast the only "no" vote.

"I know he wants some Hispanics on the association, but I'm not willing to use a sledgehammer to kill a fly," said Fiorentino.

The Gainesville-based FHSAA concedes its board of directors lacks diversity. Of the 31 directors to serve since 1997, 29 are white and 27 are male.

Four of the board's eight elected positions are open this year, including the public school seat from Miami's geographic region. Area representatives were notified of the openings and are eligible to run. But only seven applied, none Hispanic.

"All I want is for the FHSAA to be more inclusive and representative of the people of the state of Florida," Arza said. "We want to be able to have a voice, to have a place at the table."

Even if he has a place, Arza might not take a seat. For more than a year, he has served on the FHSAA's Public Liaison Advisory Committee, which meets four times a year. He has never attended a meeting.

"He was supposed to be there, but hasn't. Not once," said board chairwoman Donna Blumer, the athletic director at Dixie Hollins High School in St. Petersburg. "I don't even know who the man is."

-- Times staff writer Stephen Hegarty contributed to this report.

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