Split playoffs debated

In a packed hearing, leaders of public and private schools Tuesday clashed over a new rule that will split Louisiana’s high school football playoff system.

The change, approved by members of the Louisiana High School Athletic Association in January, sparked an unusual joint state House-Senate committee meeting.

Whether the gathering sparks any legislation is unclear. Lawmakers have limited authority on the issue and panel members urged school leaders to work out their differences.

Under the old system, public, private and other high schools competed for football championships in various classifications.

Under the new rules, public schools will compete this fall for five football championships based on enrollment.

Two other separate championships will be held for private and other schools, including magnet, charter and laboratory operations.

Winnfield High School Principal Jane Griffin, the key supporter of the legislation that sparked the change, told lawmakers that she did so because for the past 17 years “the concern was the playing field was not level” in football competition.

“Public schools take the students that come,” Griffin said.

“We don’t get to pick the brightest or the strongest or the richest,” she said.

Griffin also said that when two schools dominate in football competition — a reference to longtime powers John Curtis Christian School in River Ridge and Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport — “something is going on.”

She said she often hears, directly and indirectly, of non-public schools recruiting talented players.

“We do feel like this is in the best interest of student athletes,” Griffin said of the new playoff format.

But leaders of private schools and others charged that the new plan puts too much emphasis on winning championships, and to avoiding the competition if winning is too difficult.

Wade Smith, director of the LSU Lab School, said the new playoff setup “teaches our students that segregation is okay.”

“We believe the organization should stay together as is,” Smith said.

Parkview Baptist School Principal Don Green said educators routinely rely on research for school practices.

“It is amazing that this proposal has no data to support it,” Green said. “There is nothing there.”

The revamped playoff system, which ends more than 90 years of tradition, will include 242 traditional public schools and between 120 and 140 private and other schools.

All schools can still compete against each other during the regular season.

Mike Oakley, principal at Iowa High School near Lake Charles, praised the new rules.

“We are going to put schools together that are alike,” Oakley said. “We are about fair and equitable competition.”

But Pete Boudreaux, the longtime track and cross country coach at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, criticized the change.

“It is sad folks, it is sad,” Boudreaux said.

“This has nothing to do with students,” he said. “It has to do with winning championships. It is a shame.”

Head football coaches at two of the winningest football programs in the state disputed suggestions that they bend the rules.

“We have been scrutinized by everybody,” John Curtis Christian School football coach J.T. Curtis said.

“I refuse to make an apology for being successful in what we do,” he said.

Phillip Deas, football coach at Evangel Christian Academy, said LHSAA officials have reviewed the schools academic, athletic and financial records.

“And nothing has been found,” Deas said.

Curtis defeated Evangel in December for the 2A state title.

Todd Guice, principal of Ouachita High School, said private and other schools enjoy a huge advantage in dictating enrollment practices while public schools have to accept all applicants.

The hearing, which lasted for more than four hours, attracted a crowd of at least 75 into a crowded Senate hearing room.

“We drew more people today that we normally draw for a budget hearing,” state Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Sulphur, said.