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Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2017: UPrep appeal could create basketball tournament havoc

   This blog was posted at 12:10 p.m. and most recently updated at 3:45 p.m.

   Leading off today: Another year, another issue originating in Section 5 that could ripple across the state by the time all is said and done.

   That's the takeaway from an interesting boys basketball dust-up over how charter schools are classified within the NYSPHSAA. The matter has gone through Section 5 and New York State Public High School Athletic Association appeals and has reached the New York State Education Department, awaiting a ruling that is unlikely to come in time to affect the current season but could have substantial effects down the road.

   If University Prep, the highest-ranked NYSPHSAA member in this week's New York State Sportswriters Association boys Class AA rankings at No. 4, gets a favorable ruling from Commissioner MaryEllen Elia of the NYSED, the Rochester-based school could be moved down to Class B. Given the talent on a roster full of underclassmen and memories of how a talented Charlotte High toyed with small-school foes in the early 1980s, that could leave a lot of people unhappy across Section 5 as well as the rest of the state.

   Here's the Reader's Digest version of the events, pieced together through my own reporting and conversations with Section 5 figures familiar with the dispute:

    • University Prep, an all-male charter school carrying a BEDS number of 446, lost in the Section 5 Class A2 semifinals last February. Afterward, the sectional committee responsible for classifying non-public schools, held its regularly scheduled meeting and voted to keep UPrep in Class A2 for the 2016-17 season.

    • In October, UPrep founder and President Joe Munno was summoned to another meeting of the classification committee (the minutes of that meeting are not yet posted on the section's website), which consists of a representative of each Section 5 league. Based upon the arrival of three transfers expected to play basketball, UPrep was moved up to Class AA; two of the three have been significant complementary pieces to coveted Division I prospect Jeenathan Williams but the third left UPrep before playing a minute.

    • UPrep appealed to Section 5's Executive Committee, which upheld the decision of the Classification of Non-Public and Charter School Committee by a significant margin according to new sectional Executive Director Kathy Hoyt. The school then took its case to the NYSPHSAA, which convened an appeals panel that also ruled against UPrep in late November.

    • On Jan. 6, Munno sent off his appeal to the New York State Education Department.

    NYSED does not have explicit control of the NYSPHSAA, but the state's largest high school sports governing body does have to abide by the regulations and rulings handed down by Elia in her role as education commissioner.

    Even relatively cut-and-dried matters that land in the commissioner's lap -- such as parents residing in one school district seeking to enroll their children in another district or be approved for bus transportation -- can take two months or longer to be decided even though there's often sufficient case law on the books to slap the relevant boilerplate language onto a document in a matter of minutes.

    But charter school matters are a relatively new field, with the independent, not-for-profit public schools only getting approval to open back in 1998. Decisions handed down by NYSED commissioners since then regarding charter schools are relatively rare and frequently have to do with matters such as sharing resources with the public school districts in which they operate. A ruling with the potential to set precedent that may stand for years or even decades could understandably take NYSED lawyers months to craft and then present to Elia for consideration.

    That is why a decision that could affect the 2017 Section 5 and/or NYSPHSAA tournaments is unlikely. The sectional tournament will be seeded one month from today; even a ruling in favor of UPrep by the end of this month would raise enough chaos and controversy for Elia to determine that changes would take effect over the summer.

    I posed a hypothetical question to Munno on Monday, asking if he'd settle for an immediate return to Class A2 in time for next month's sectionals, and he responded affirmitively without hesitation. But if he has to fight right down to the end and does ultimately win, then a compromise of that sort would be off the table and he would likely insist that Section 5 abide by BEDS data.

    What are the other implications should UPrep receive a favorable ruling?

    • Most if not all NYSPHSAA sections have committees with the authority to move private and charter schools to higher postseason classifications than their BEDS numbers would otherwise dictate. Going forward, charter schools would have to be treated like the public schools that make up approximately 90 percent of NYSPHSAA membership -- they could request to be moved up but not forced to do so.

    • As we first reported last July, the NYSPHSAA is studying a two-pronged proposal in dealing with private and charter schools -- carving out one or two new geography based sections in which they would compete and/or creating a statewide committee either to decide or review move-ups. Both ideas could be rendered moot.

   The UPrep case: I took some shortcuts above for the sake of brevity in laying out the broad issue, though I did link back to my July story is which Munno (who retired from the Rochester City School District after a long career as an administrator) asserted that many people -- including some athletic officials -- have inaccurate perceptions of charter schools.

   As mentioned above, charters are public schools funded by state government but operating independent of the traditional school districts. The are given boundaries upon creation like their counterparts and certain restrictions more stringent than what public school districts face.

   In UPrep's case, they can take in only 75 students per year; if they receive 75 or more applications (which is typical) from Rochester residents, then suburban students are wait-listed. Munno told me last year that perhaps 15 of his almost 450 students in grades 7-12 live outside the city, but many of them started at the school as city residents and by law remained eligible to stay even after moving.

   More than one charter school administrator has made the case that loopholes along those lines are no more advantageous to charter schools than the Urban-Suburban program is to traditional school districts. With a roster entirely of players from the city, Munno can argue the inconsistency of letting Monroe County League teams with Urban-Suburban participants staying in Class A.

   Complications: There are assorted intriguing aspects to this controversy.

   One of them that comes to mind is the goverment heirarchy. The State Education Department answers to the New York Board of Regents, as does the State University of New York system. UPrep's charter application was put forward by the SUNY Charter Schools Institute, and its general counsel has written to Elia in support of the school.

   On top of that, Munno said he has reached out to three state senators from the Rochester area, and two of them are on the Education Committee, with one also on the Higher Education Committee.

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