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Wednesday, July 27, 2016: Doing nothing (for now) isn't a bad idea

   VERONA, N.Y. (Wednesday, July 27, 2016) --

   I'd like to think I know my way around most of the key issues in New York high school sports and a bunch of the less pivotal ones.

   But I was lost five minutes into Tuesday's boys lacrosse discussion; I started the day thinking there had been only two options pitched regarding new classification cutoffs since the addition of a Class D was approved, but the discussion ultimately turned up somewhere between 2½ (don't ask) and 4.

   And the football hosting skirmish (you'll thank me for not getting into specifics of that one either) was baffling even though I had the paperwork in front of me and listened to all the back-and-forth.

   It's no wonder then that the continuing saga of public vs. private schools has me scratching my head with respect to what the ultimate resolution could or should be.

   And I'm apparently not alone. An offhand remark by Steve Broadwell, president of the NYSPHSAA, made me realize there was an option out there that I hadn't considered: The existing equilibrium between public and private schools in New York high school sports -- as uncomfortable as it might be -- may be better than all the other solutions being kicked around these days.

   Speaking after business concluded on the opening day of the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Central Committee meeting, Broadwell acknowledged that the stakeholders might ultimately decide that doing nothing is the best course of action. In fact, officials from governing bodies in other states have gone so far as to tell him New York seems to have a pretty good handle on such a thorny issue.

   I want to make clear that (a) the context in which Broadwell spoke was pretty narrow so don't start firing off angry letters to him written in crayon, and (b) it's still too early in the ball game for anyone to resign themselves to the conclusion that inaction could be the best action. As was reported Tuesday, the NYSPHSAA's Membership Committee met last week and formed a new committee that will continue to look at options.

   On the other hand, New York is a big, honkin' state with lots of moving high school sports pieces -- four major governing organizations, including one with 11 individually administrated sections -- and more school districts than Preet Bharara has subpoenas.

   "New York is only one of two states nationally that have a set-up with sections, California being the other," Davis Whitfield, chief operating officer of the National Federation of State High School Associations told me during an exchange of emails Tuesday when I inquired about the idea of creating a Section 12 and 13. "This adds a different dimension.

   "Each section has a different personality, different expectations of a state office, different makeup as it relates to public vs. private schools, different perceptions regarding the severity of the 'problem.'"

   That's kind of how we got to where we are at the moment. There hadn't been much in the way of flare-ups lately until last fall, when Monroe County school superintendents sent a petition to the NYSPHSAA and Section 5 asking them to kick the Rochester area's private schools to the curb. As I wrote then, their "facts" failed to impress and I was a little embarrassed for them over their sense of entitlement.

   Still, it rattled some cages. Other leagues within Section 5 and other sections chimed in, and we had ourselves a front-burner issue. But its eight months later and we don't have anything resembling a consensus alternative. Yes, there are ideas, but none of them are obvious home runs.

   The idea that reared its head last week might prove to be the winner. The more I look at the proposition of adding two new sections that would house the non-public and charter schools, the more I like it. Ninety percent of the membership gets a set of postseason competitions that can be characterized as true public-school championships and the remainder of the NYSPHSAA schools -- private and charter schools that are all in good standing with the association despite the recent fuss -- gets meaningful sectional competition and a continued path toward overall state titles, first against the public-school counterparts and then within the Federation dynamic.

   But no sooner than you can say, "Let's print up some ballots and vote this baby through," former Miller Lite beer commercials cast member Marv Throneberry shows up, dressed as the state's charter schools, to say "I still don't know what I'm doing here."

   Administrators at charter schools, which are actually a sub-group of public schools, are starting to make the case that they don't have much in common with private schools. In fact, at the time of their approval, they are given boundaries that dictate where they will be drawing the majority of their enrollment from.

   It's why fewer than 15 of University Prep's 450 boys in grades 7-12 come from outside the city of Rochester. If that school could more easily accept students from neighboring Greece, for instance, it could probably fill another 450 seats in less time than Donald Trump's acceptance speech (OK, bad example ...) last week.

   So, there we are. A promising idea for change comes with a legitimate concern attached before the committee formed to study it even gets started.

   Another 90 seconds of thought raises more questions. Adding two sections worth of competitors to the state

  
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wrestling tournament adds 60 athletes to the field, which cuts the number of available wildcard berths in half. Sections 5, 8 and 11, by virtue of their size and skill, currently snare a lot of the 120 wildcard berths each year, with many of those athletes reaching the podium or even winning weight classes.

   Do you think their wrestling committees will sit idly by while that happens? On Tuesday, NYSPHSAA Executive Director Robert Zayas told the membership that he has comparable concerns about the request by the Association of Independent Schools to join the state meet -- and that would only drain 15 wildcard berths from the pool.

   Stuff like that is why Zayas' introductory remarks Tuesday included a call to examine how to get the most out of the NYSPHSAA's participation -- i.e., the best possible experience for the kids -- in the Federation setup.

   Not unlike the public vs. private debate issue before the Monroe County superintendents spoke up last fall, Federation issues had been mostly back-burner stuff in recent years. And now it's relatively important stuff -- not just to Zayas, but to a pretty fair chunk of the membership.

   Wednesday's "cracker barrel" session on Day 2 of the Central Committee meeting breaks the gathered officials from across New York into small groups, using their expertise in high school sports to discuss a variety of topics. One of those topics will be combined teams.

   If you're not up to speed, the practice of combining nearby schools to form a single team has become pretty popular across the state in this era of typically declining enrollments and tight budgets. A formula that allows the merged schools to reduce their combined BEDS number is being looked at now by some as overly generous -- i.e., unfair.

   Some of those combined teams end up being pretty good. Sachem, which has two very large high schools forming one team, won the NYSPHSAA boys bowling title last season. If official team scoring had been kept in skiing and swimming, three more state titles would have gone to combined teams.

   Meanwhile, private and charter schools scored a total of six state team championships last year.

   Do you see where I'm going with that? Lots of consternation over one issue but not much chatter (until now) about the other.

*       *       *       *       *

   My advice to Section 5 last fall was that it shouldn't react to the superintendents by just considering the problem one group had with private schools. If the lack of boundaries for private schools is troubling, then so too might be the open-enrollment policy of some districts with multiple schools, the use of combined teams (there's that phrase again) by a few districts, the ability of students to "tuition-in" to public schools and the Urban-Suburban program to name but a few.

   Don't turn a blind eye to everything else while trying to fix one issue, especially if the fix isn't an easy one. And that's why the NYSPHSAA is right to push forward on combined schools and Federation stuff while waiting for better ideas on the subject of private schools.

   Job 1 remains seeking the best possible experience for the largest number of athletes. It may require some give and take, but it's worth doing.

   The NFHS's Whitfield, who had praise for Zayas' stewardship of the state's largest scholastic sports governing body, was talking specifically about the possible expansion of sections, but the sentiment can be applied to broader issues as well.

   "At the end if the day, not all constituents will be happy with any solution," he said, "but if they feel the solution is fair, then it may be worth pursuing."


  
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