Football playoffs face legislative scrutiny

The dispute over plans to split Louisiana’s high school football playoffs between public and other schools has spilled into the Legislature.

A special joint Senate-House committee is set to meet on Tuesday at 9:30 a.m. to review a decision by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association, which voted on Jan. 25 to scrap a system that has been in place for more than 90 years.

Principals voted to have five football championships strictly for public school teams starting this fall.

Two other separate playoffs will be held for private schools.

That private school group will include longtime powers John Curtis High School of River Ridge and Evangel Christian Academy of Shreveport, as well as teams representing magnet, charter, laboratory schools and others.

LHSAA’s vote — the tally was 206-119 — has sparked angry comments.

Backers said the realignment will give players in public schools a better chance of winning, and that private schools have enjoyed an advantage by being able to essentially recruit top players.

Opponents said the split stems from resentment over successful programs, and that the two systems will dilute the value of football championships.

State Sen. Page Cortez, chairman of the special committee, said he was taken aback by the vote to overhaul the football playoffs.

“I was shocked,” said Cortez, a former head football coach himself.

“I think it weakens the whole organization,” he said. “It kind of waters down the meaning of the championships.”

But whether Tuesday’s hearing leads to any legislation is unclear.

The Lafayette Republican called the gathering an informational session sparked by questions and concerns from constituents after the LHSAA’s vote.

“A lot of legislators were apparently being asked questions and they all just started calling me,” said Cortez, who was head football coach at Lafayette High School from 1988-93.

He said he hopes both sides will “find some common ground and maintain the organization as it has been” for years.

However, Cortez also said “I don’t think it should be the position of the Legislature to dictate one way or another.”

Another complication, and one that has already sparked proposed legislation, is a recent ruling by the state Supreme Court that said the LHSAA is a private firm, not subject to the Open Meetings Law and cannot be audited by the state.

That reversed a 1981 ruling by the state’s high court.

The latest decision stems from a 2010 lawsuit by LHSAA officials against the state, the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the Louisiana Legislative Auditor.

That challenge was filed shortly after a state audit concluded that former LHSAA Commissioner Tommy Henry may have fraudulently spent thousands of dollars of association money.

The LHSAA questioned whether the state should have been permitted to review its books.

Citing that ruling, state Rep. Alan Seabaugh, R-Shreveport, has filed a bill that would remove LHSAA employees from the Teachers’ Retirement System of Louisiana, or TRSL.

“They won the lawsuit,” Seabaugh said. “They said they are private in every way.”

In a reference to the Internal Revenue Service, Seabaugh added: “That means we have private sector employees in a public retirement system and that doesn’t fly, and it is a violation of several IRS regulations.”

The proposal is House Bill 53.

LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson, who is one of eight LHSAA employees enrolled in the TRSL, generally declined comment on the proposal “other than that I don’t like it.”

He said employees of the association have been enrolled in the TRSL since 1954.

Henderson, who plans to attend Tuesday’s hearing, also declined comment on the possibility that the Legislature will enter the fray over the football playoffs.

The 2013 regular legislative session starts on April 8.