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Changes sought for private schools

One proposal before the FHSAA would force private schools to play larger public programs.

By GREG AUMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2001


The battle between public and private schools will reach another level this week as the representative assembly of the Florida High School Activities Association gathers in Gainesville to discuss proposed changes in the rules that govern athletic programs.

Private schools are the target of several of the 16 proposals, and while this isn't the first time a group of public schools has sought to level what they think is an uneven playing field, the latest efforts aren't being taken lightly.

"You have to take them very seriously," said Berkeley Prep athletic director Bobby Reinhart. He said it is never easy to know which proposals have a legitimate chance at approval, which requires two-thirds of the votes cast by delegates in attendance. Of the 69 representatives, 32 specifically represent public schools, which is double the private contingent.

Just the same, the proposals to be considered are simply that at this point. "Anybody can propose anything" was the caveat from Jesuit athletic director Sonny Hester, who said many of the ideas will be hard-pressed to get the requisite votes. Among those that will be discussed Monday and Tuesday:

A proposal, presented by 11 Panhandle-area public schools, that essentially would force private schools to compete against larger public schools. The plan would adjust "upward by 50 percent the student populations of private schools and university laboratory schools for the purpose of assigning such schools to classifications."

Proponents argue this would level the playing field, but private school administrators say such a move would hurt all teams across the state in response to the illegal practices of a few.

"It's absurd," said Berkeley Prep's Reinhart. "It's the public schools' way to alleviate recruiting, but you can't penalize every school for what a few places are doing."

Similar proposals have been brought to votes before. Last year, a similar group of public schools sought to separate private schools entirely from the rest of the FHSAA. Reinhart said he would rather see tougher sanctions brought against schools that do break the rules, rather than broad penalties levied against all private schools.

Another proposal goes after the state's golf and tennis academies, such as Wesley Chapel's Saddlebrook, by requiring that schools compete in at least two sports per season to be eligible to compete in the state playoffs.

The proposal, sponsored by FHSAA commissioner Bob Hughes, notes that the NCAA and several other state high school organizations have similar measures.

The proposal would not affect a school's membership in the FHSAA, but would impact its eligibility for state championships. The proposal would not take effect until July 2003, giving schools a two-year window to comply with new standards.

Hester said he is "dead against" competing against schools that field teams in only one or two sports, but said he has mixed emotions because such an amendment also would impact schools that would like to have more teams but lack the numbers.

Berkeley, for instance, has been in the same district as Saddlebrook in tennis, where only one team per district can advance to the state meet. Reinhardt said he's "all for" that proposal, though he warns that a similar amendment was voted down last year.

Saddlebrook officials could not be reached Friday for comment.

Another proposal would eliminate restrictions on high school coaches coaching their own players during the off-season. Currently, coaches cannot run any non-school if more than half the players play for the coach in high school.

The so-called "50-percent" rule often is seen as a deterrent to recruiting, but Hester said it can have the opposite effect, because coaches are unable to work their athletes out of season, making them more likely to join another coach at another school.

A nearly identical measure fell short of being ratified by a single vote last year, and Hester said his reasons for endorsing it are the same: high school coaches can give players a higher level of coaching in the off-season, and the current provision limits the opportunities that coaches have to supplementing their coaching income. What's more, the rule is unwittingly applied with a heavy hand in rural areas where there isn't another local team a coach could work with instead.

The FHSAA declined to comment on any proposals until they have been reviewed and voted on by the representative assembly.

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