LHSAA considers dividing schools between select, nonselect for playoffs

Could the third time be the charm?

That’s what supporters of two proposals that would split the Louisiana High School Athletic Association into separate playoff divisions are wondering.

The LHSAA enters its annual convention set for Wednesday through Friday at Baton Rouge’s Crowne Plaza at yet another crossroads.

In 1998 and 2004, LHSAA member principals grappled with and ultimately rejected proposals to split the association into separate divisions for public and private schools.

Now there are two proposals on the convention agenda that offer variations on that theme.

The first, submitted by former South Beauregard Principal Marlin Ramsey over a year ago, would divide the
association into separate playoff
divisions for select and nonselect schools in major team sports starting in 2015-16.

A second proposal submitted by a group of principals led by Winnfield High Principal Jane Griffin would divide member schools into separate playoff divisions for football starting this fall.

“This would change the LHSAA and high school sports in Louisiana as we know it,” Karr Principal John Hiser told a group of administrators at a Friday meeting for select schools. “I wasn’t for it when I was on the other side of this, and I’m not for it now.”

Doyle High Principal Tommy Hodges offered the opposing view at Baton Rouge’s preconvention area meeting Thursday, saying, “I’ve spoken with a lot of principals who are in favor of this (Ramsey’s plan). They want something that’s all encompassing. They’d hate to do football now, and then have to come back and correct that.”

Here’s a look at the proposals and what is being said about them.

Is it all football?

At Thursday’s area meeting, LHSAA Executive Director Kenny Henderson said complaints about dominance typically are limited to football. He used the example that no one complained about a school (Episcopal School of Acadiana) winning 13 volleyball titles in a row a few years ago.

“In Louisiana, football is king,” Henderson said. “And that’s why you hear about football.”

The dominance of football powers John Curtis-River Ridge and Evangel Christian Academy-Shreveport has been widely publicized. Curtis won its 25th state football title last month in Class 2A by beating Evangel and also was selected as a national champion.

The 25 titles won by Curtis is a national record. The Patriots have appeared in the state finals 17 straight years.

Curtis’ dominance dates to the 1970s. Evangel won its first state title in Class 1A in 1993 and has won 13 state titles in classes 1A, 3A and 5A.

In December, five select schools — Class 5A Archbishop Rummel, 4A Karr, 3A Parkview Baptist, 2A Curtis and 1A Ouachita Christian — all won state titles.

What they say

“I’ve gotten calls from Colorado, Tennessee and Alabama about it. That tells me this is not just a Louisiana problem,” Ramsey told principals at the 2012 convention.

“I don’t think the playing field is level for all schools. It (the proposal) is not perfect and may need to be altered some. But I believe it will give more schools a fair chance to compete for championships.”

“The first things you look at when it comes to the LHSAA are No. 1, is it the best interest of student-athletes and is it fair equitable,” Griffin said. “The way things are right now it’s not fair and equitable.

“The reason we chose to go with football is because it’s already in five classes and the districts are already set. We could try it for two years and see if it works and if it doesn’t we could go back or try something different. And in two years, if other sports want to try this they can make proposals.”

Griffin also referenced recruiting and said it’s called unfair at any level, even the elementary level. She also referenced John Curtis, the team Winnfield lost to in the 2011 title game in its first appearance since beating Curtis in a 1982 title game.

“Winnfield won a state title in 1982, and it took us 30 years to get back,” Griffin said. “There is no way a school can maintain a level of talent like that over a 30-year period without something else going on In a normal situation, you go through cycles.”

The definitions

Both proposals define select and nonselect schools the same way.

A nonselect school is defined as a traditional public school that draws its enrollment from a defined attendance zone.

Select schools are defined as private or public schools that have a policy that allows the selection of students, whether it is based on tuition payment and admission into specialized academic programs. This group includes private schools, charter schools, magnet schools, laboratory schools and dual-curriculum schools.

Both proposals call for select and nonselect schools to compete against each other in districts for the regular season. Both also allow for five championship divisions for nonselect schools and two for select schools.

Key differences

The South Beauregard plan calls for separate championships in football and seven other sports: baseball, basketball, cross country, soccer, softball and outdoor track and field and volleyball.

This means select and non-select schools will continue to compete against each other in swimming, gymnastics, bowling, wrestling, powerlifting, tennis, indoor track and golf for LHSAA titles. The football-only proposal makes no provision for other sports.

The proposals differ on the percentage of students a dual-curriculum school must draw from outside its attendance zone in order to be considered select.

The South Beauregard proposal calls for 33 percent. The football-only proposal calls for 25 percent. Henderson has told LHSAA principals his staff does not have dual-curriculum percentages and would have to obtain them.

Because the South Beauregard proposal was tabled last year, a vote will be required to get it considered. The football only proposal is in line for consideration.

By the numbers

The 92-year-old LHSAA has 388 member schools. Of that group, there are 90 private schools, 19 charter schools, eight full magnet schools, three lab schools and 21 schools with magnet components that are dual-curriculum schools. Private schools make up 20.6 percent of the membership. Factoring in the maximum number of dual-curriculum schools makes the possible select percent 30.9.

The LHSAA agenda has breakdowns on where schools would fall in the select/nonselect categories. Several schools are shaded in gray, noting their status as dual-curriculum schools that could be either select or nonselect.

Also shaded in gray are Louisiana Recovery School District members coded as nonselect schools, noting those schools could be converted into charter schools. That list of five schools includes Sarah Reed-New Orleans, and four schools in the BR area: Capitol, Istrouma, Pointe Coupee Central and St. Helena Central.

Henderson said he has been told different things about the status of New Orleans schools, Eleanor McMain and McDonogh 35. Are they full magnet schools or dual curriculum? That’s just one question that must be answered.

Championship numbers

Research by Brusly High Athletic Director Tait Dupont before Thursday’s area meeting offers some surprising numbers concerning LHSAA championships over the past 10-12 years.

Dupont said he found select schools won 61 percent of state titles in the boys sports of football, baseball, basketball, outdoor track and cross country.

The highest percentage of select-school champions came in cross country where the total was 91 percent. The total for football was actually 51 percent. Baseball (67 percent), track (56 percent) and basketball (45 percent) were the others.

Dupont also said he found select schools won 67 percent of girls titles during the same time period in volleyball, softball, basketball, track and cross country.

Volleyball (95 percent) and cross country (89 percent) had the highest percentages. Other totals were softball (58 percent), track (54 percent) and basketball (45 percent).

Major questions

If either proposal is passed, major questions remain and the LHSAA’s executive committee will be left to fill in the gaps.

How will championships and playoffs be administered?Adding two more title contests probably would extend the LHSAA’s football championships a day, costing some schools more than three days of classroom time.

How would power rankings be determined? How many teams would be placed on the bracket? For other sports like track and cross country, would the number of state qualifiers change?

Select schools point to possible football safety issues. Under both plans, the select Division I would range from schools with enrollments of more than 2,000 and down to University High, the smallest 3A school with an enrollment under 300.

Because the football-only plan would go into effect this fall using the two-year districting plan approved last fall, there are questions.

Several schools opted to play up by one class above their enrollment based on a by-law change approved last year not knowing a playoff change would alter their plans. Should they be allowed to reconsider?

The list includes Evangel and Curtis. Others did so to lessen travel. The smallest school is all-girls Louise McGehee and also includes Northlake Christian (281).

On the top end of the spectrum for Division I football are the large all-boys schools, such as Jesuit-New Orleans and Catholic High-Baton Rouge, along with C.E. Byrd-Shreveport. The lower end of the spectrum has Northlake Christian and four other football schools with less than 300 students.

Where do the dual-curriculum schools fall?

Will most of them be nonselect or will some be select?

Recruiting or choice

Concerns over recruitment of athletes by private schools has always been a big factor in these disputes, with John Curtis and Evangel listed in the forefront. Whether or not that characterization is correct is a point of debate.

At Thursday’s Baton Rouge meeting, the point was brought up that the LHSAA should “bust those” who are cheating. And if no violations are found, other member schools should move on and work to elevate their level of play.

Henderson responded, “Recruiting is the single most difficult thing to prove. You have to have witnesses who are willing to testify. And not just for the LHSAA. If we were get sued, the witnesses would also have to testify in court. When we ask about, ‘Would you be willing to testify in court,’ they say, ‘We’re not going to court.’ ”

The LHSAA does not have subpoena power like a legal body, Henderson added.

Frustrations also are evident on the other side of the equation.

Evangel Principal Bud Dean said the LHSAA’s school relations committee worked to pass by-laws that require private schools to provide transparency in their financial aid for all students, including student -athletes. The school relations committee includes public and private-school administrators and coaches.

“I worked on the committee when those proposals were put together,” Dean said. “Our hope was that this transparency would alleviate the problems. What else do they (other schools) want us to show them?”

Because private schools do not automatically draw students from attendance zones, they have to attract students to their schools, Dean said.

Recruitment or parental choice?

“I’ve been on both sides of the fence coaching public and private schools and I’m against it,” said Gary Duhe, Louisiana High School Coaches Association president and St. Amant boys basketball coach. “What people don’t understand is that success sells your program. When I coached at Redemptorist and we were successful, the program sold itself.

“And it’s not just a private school thing. You see the same thing right now with Scotlandville in basketball. Their success draws people to them. It’s the same thing for Curtis and Evangel in football.”

Multiple schools in the Baton Rouge area, public and private, said it is now common for parents to visit and inquire about a school’s academic and athletic programs.

Coaches call it a continuation of the process that starts well before high school when parents chose basketball, soccer, baseball or softball programs for their kids.

To stay or go

Select school administrators and coaches, most of whom were affiliated with private schools, met Friday at Episcopal to discussion the proposals and options on the horizon.

LHSAA vice president David Federico, of Ecole Classique, told the group the meeting was not about deciding to break away from the LHSAA if either proposal passes. His focus was on solutions and planning.

“To be honest with you, I’m not sure pulling out would be in anybody’s best interest,” Federico said.

Henderson added, “There are schools that don’t want you (your schools) in the association. By voluntarily leaving you would give them what they want.”