Beth Hill called it a “dark cloud.”
The Newark Catholic principal admitted she “gets emotional” when talking about it. It, of course, is the battle of public vs. private.
The debate has resurfaced again and become a raging inferno. A group led by administrators from the Wooster area gathered enough signatures on a petition to force a winner-take-all vote in May.
The Ohio High School Athletic Association has placed the referendum item on the ballot to be decided by the state’s principals. It would go into effect for the 2014-15 school year.
“You can plead your case as much as you want, but a school has to vote in the best interest of the school,” Hill said. “We hope they see the big picture. This is going to change the landscape. You talk to certain coaches and kids, and they will say: ‘We want to play the best. We want to know who is the best in our division.'”
Hill is NC born and bred. She starred at the school, then coached volleyball there. She has been an assistant athletic director and is now principal at the school. She personally has been on hand to see about each of the 24 state championship banners hung in the gymnasium.
If a faction in Ohio gets its way, the Green Wave will be shut out of future traditional state tournaments. Instead, the private schools will be sent to their own tournament.
“For me to say split them, it would be crazy,” Utica baseball coach Bren Henderson said.
Henderson’s teams have lost tournament games to Bishop Hartley in 2007 and Bishop Watterson in 2009. He, however, has a close relationship with NC coach John Cannizarro and played football and baseball against NC football coach and athletic director Bill Franks.
“I am just against that,” Henderson said. “At the end of the day, I guess I would just rather keep it the way it is. Us public schools need to get tougher, work harder.”
Henderson’s conundrum is one no different than many coaches and administrators around the state. Everybody wants what is perceived to be a level playing field, but that line becomes blurrier each year.
As private schools win their fair share of state championships — football titles this season were split at three — a bit of free agency has broken out at public schools around the state. Newark’s boys basketball team hosted Gahanna and Division I recruit Javon Bess on Friday.
If Bess’ name sounds familiar, it is because he played on Pickerington Central’s state title team in 2011-12. The Tigers beat Newark in a district final. Now, Bess is back at Gahanna, where he played in middle school.
“If we ever thought for one second that there was anything shady going on, we would say something, but absolutely not,” Newark superintendent Doug Ute said. “We have a relationship between Newark City Schools and Newark Catholic that we are very fortunate to have. Those kinds of things aren’t just public and private because kids move public to public.”
Newark is an interested observer. The Wildcats rarely run into a private school in tournament play. But the volleyball team was beaten in a district final by Watterson in 2011. This vote could affect the football program’s future course.
The OHSAA already has approved a seventh — or super — division in football starting in 2012-13. When the largest 72 schools are pulled off the top, Newark — which continues to fall down the Ohio Capital Conference enrollment ladder — likely would be a Division II school.
The super division solves one issue: It would create a place for many of the large private schools to compete for football titles. It, however, did nothing to combat the issue of Youngstown football factories Cardinal Mooney and Ursuline often dominating smaller divisions.
“You hear those exceptions,” Granville athletic director Kevin Jarrett said. “You hear about kids that went to Cincinnati Moeller or (Cleveland St. Ignatius), but you hear that about Canton McKinley, too.”
The principals will cast the critical vote, and Granville principal Ryan Bernath often turns to Jarrett for debate. Jarrett is in constant communication with his coaches, and he also has experience hosting Central District events — previously at Newark and now at Granville.
A split in tournaments would create the need for more venues and officials. Because of dwindling crowds and excess travel, the Central District has moved early-round tournament action in all sports to home sites.
“That is what it is going to come down to: educating our constituency of the ramifications of what will happen,” said Hill, who is serving a two-year term on the OHSAA Board of Directors. “What is the ripple effect? What will be the divisions? Where will we host the tournaments? How will we pay for the tournaments?”
Split tournaments could place the future of sports such as gymnastics and field hockey in jeopardy because many of the participating schools are private. They also would cause sizable enrollment gaps in divisional play. Would NC or Granville Christian, which just recently joined the OHSAA, compete against Bishop Hartley or even DeSales?
“The size disparity is a big factor,” Jarrett said. “It wouldn’t be a good thing for the smaller schools at all. You might have Granville Christian having to play a Harvest Prep or a Worthington Christian, and there is a huge difference there.”
Hill said the NC student body has about a 90 percent participation in the local Catholic churches. While NC draws most of its students from Newark, the Green Wave can take students from any districts in Licking and Knox counties.
Any other students who transfer into the school must sit out a year unless their family moves into the area. Many of the Green Wave’s current athletes have grown up in the Catholic school system. Other prominent athletes enrolled as freshmen after playing middle school sports at public schools. Others yet made their way through the NC doors after starting high school.
Heath is one of three Licking County districts without open enrollment. Heath baseball won state titles in 2002 and ’07. The Bulldogs beat Elyria Catholic to win the first.
“It is not fair they can get kids from almost anywhere, and we get the kids from Heath. That is it,” said Mike Saalfield, the Heath boys golf coach and an assistant baseball coach. “I really think the area that you draw kids from should determine your size. If you are going to take kids from 50 miles away, I would say you have a distinct advantage over the team that draws kids from two miles away.”
The same proposal was voted down in 1978 and ’94. Just two years ago, the OHSAA’s competitive balance committee proposed a plan that would add a multiplier to school enrollments based on several factors, including open enrollment policies and recent success. The proposal was voted down by less than 30 votes as those with public and private schools argued it penalized successful programs.
Hill pointed out many of the administrators in her age group or older are retiring or recently retired. With young blood making decisions at many of the state’s schools, has the pendulum changed so slightly? Hill hopes the OHSAA eventually can work to an improved system for all parties.
The Licking County League appeared to have suffered irreparable damage more than 20 years ago. In 2012-13, 10 area schools will take the field united again.
“A lot of schools gave to get, especially with the divisions for football,” Hill said. “That is such a huge step. If the rest of the state could see what Licking County could do, what a great situation. Will it be perfect? No. We are going to have some growing pains, but we can come to the table and talk this thing through.”