Separation of public, private schools?

Senate surprises many by passing a bill to establish governing body for private schools.

Published May 2, 2007

For the past 77 years, public and private high school sports programs in Florida have competed under the same umbrella, now known as the Florida High School Athletic Association.

They share the same districts, compete for the same state titles and abide by the same rules. But a surprising development in Tallahassee could result in a radical departure from that setup.

In a move that left many administrators around the state mystified, the Senate passed a bill that would result in the creation of a separate governing body for private schools, the Florida Private High School Athletic Association.

The almost universal reaction?

"It could throw all of high school sports into a complete tailspin," said Bob Henriquez, football coach at Tampa Catholic and a former state representative.

Henriquez, like most of his colleagues, was caught off-guard by the news.

"Nobody said anything to us," FHSAA commissioner John Stewart said.

Though the current setup has led to some grumbling on the part of both private and public schools, there has been no indication either group might break from the other.

That changed Tuesday afternoon, when the Senators approved a last-minute amendment to a popular bill implementing a steroid testing program for high school athletes. In addition to the steroid program, the bill gives private schools their own governing entity.

In order for the legislation to reach the desk of Gov. Charlie Crist, the amendment must be passed by the House, which is expected today according to House bill sponsor Rep. Marcelo Llorente of South Florida.

Final passage of the legislation is expected today or Thursday, though it's not clear whether it has Crist's support.

A group of senators headed by Republican Daniel Webster said the amendment was in response to complaints from various private schools in their districts that felt the FHSAA was biased against them. The schools feel as if they are singled out for recruiting allegations and that they do not have enough representation within the FHSAA.

Sen. Jim King, R-Jacksonville, said the FHSAA is "rude" and "arrogant" and doesn't listen to the complaints of private schools.

Webster, meanwhile, compared the organization to a monarchy.

"It seems like a kingdom that's been built with no say in what the king does," Webster said.

King said one of the schools that complained to him was Arlington Country Day in Jacksonville. The school's football coach, James Sims, said he was unaware of the legislative action but supports it.

Sims said he feels public schools often unfairly accuse schools like Arlington Country Day of recruiting and thinks there is a need for an organization "that would be able to understand the private school system and how it works and govern us and be specific about how we are doing.

"I would rather do that than fight with the FHSAA," he said.

Early anecdotal evidence suggests he might be one of the few.

"We did not propose it, we did not support it, and most private schools if they read the details would not support it," said Skardon Bliss, executive director of the Florida Council of Independent Schools, which includes 55 private schools who are FHSAA members.

The bill states that teams from the two organizations - the FHSAA and the FPHSAA - would be permitted to schedule each other in regular-season games. Additionally, both associations' state champions in each classification of each sport would face each other at the end of the season.

Critics say the change would destabilize high school sports.

"This is a radical departure and something that should have been discussed first," Henriquez said.

Times staff writer Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler contributed to this report. David Murphy can be reached at dmurphy@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1407.