BATON ROUGE — Even though temptation might be great, the Legislature should stay out of the dispute among Louisiana High School Athletics Association coaches and principals over a new football state championship policy, says Sen. Page Cortez.
Cortez, R-Lafayette, chaired a 4-1/2 hour Senate Select Committee on High School Interscholastic Athletics hearing Tuesday in which supporters and opponents expressed opinions on a new LHSAA policy establishing separate playoffs mostly for private and parochial schools.
LHSAA members voted 206-119 in January to have separate playoffs for regular public schools that draw students from assigned attendance zones and “select” schools that can draw students from other zones. Included in that grouping are private and parochial schools, charter schools and schools with magnet programs in which at least 25 percent of students live outside the school zone.
Currently, C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport and Scotlandville Magnet in Baton Rouge are on the latter list but seven other high schools, Opelousas, Pineville, Ridgedale Academy in West Monroe, Glen Oaks in Baton Rouge, Hammond, and McDonough 35 and Eleanor McMain in New Orleans, are also to be added.
Cortez urged LHSAA members to try to settle their disagreement and not ask the Legislature to get involved.
“I would like the LHSAA to take care of this issue and do what is best for the children of this state,” he told a committee room packed with principals and coaches. He said he hopes the Legislature doesn’t get involved because “it’s 144 people, all with different opinions.”
Also, “it’s easier to make changes at an organizational level,” Cortez said.
LHSAA members at the hearing said the new policy would be in effect two years and then reviewed to see if it is working well.
Sen. Mike Walsworth, R-West Monroe, said he “wasn’t looking forward to” attending the meeting because he feared it would be contentious. But afterward he said “for it to be football, it was quite civil.”
Walsworth agrees with Cortez that the Legislature shouldn’t get involved because “we’ve got our own problems to take care of. Nobody in the Senate wants to get into it.”
After the 270-minute meeting, Cortez said that because he is “an eternal optimist, there’s always the possibility” that members can reach a compromise that would alleviate some of the hard feelings among some private school leaders who said they feel like they are subject to discrimination.
Representatives of several “select” schools complained that they can’t compete with the top public schools to prove which team is the true state champion. They will play the same schools in the regular season and will be part of districts, but will have separate playoffs and championships.
Some representatives of regular public schools complained that select schools have an advantage and can draw students from anywhere, so they can field better teams. They said they had heard that private schools recruit players and offer funds but under questioning by Cortez, none could provide evidence of that happening.
Cortez said everyone needs to deal with facts, not speculation.
Much of the discussion skirted around the fact that two private schools – Evangel in Shreveport and John Curtis in Jefferson Parish – have been dominant in whatever districts they competed.
Coaches from both schools acknowledged that they attract good athletes but pointed out their academic successes, as well.
“I am not going to apologize for being good at what I do,” said head football coach J.T. Curtis. “I’m going to take anybody who has $6,200” for tuition. His players come from several parishes in the New Orleans area.
Evangel Coach Phillip Dees said his players come mostly from Caddo and Bossier parishes but he had one player from Texas on the team this year.
He said Evangel’s history of success has “inherent advantages” in drawing top players but he does not recruit. Also, players are expected to excel academically.
LHSAA Director Kenny Henderson, a former Ruston High School coach, said the organization has investigated complaints about the two schools several times and has never found evidence of recruiting players.
He said J.T. Curtis became the coach at John Curtis 38 years ago and has won 25 state championships.
North Vermilion High School Coach Thomas Byler told the panel “I don’t think this split is best for the organization.” He said schools are not “on a level playing field” regardless of how playoffs are designed because some programs are better than others.
“Evangel and John Curtis don’t have to recruit because their programs are that good,” he said.
Mike Boyer, principal at Teurlings High in Lafayette, also said he believes the new system is bad for the LHSAA.
“It is very selective,” he said. “They took out who they don’t want to be there… I will not apologize for having a great school.”
Todd Guice, principal of Ouachita Parish High School in Monroe, a supporter of the new rule, said one advantage is “we will crown two more state champions at the end of football season” because of the additional grouping.
He said being able to accept students from a larger area is an advantage for private schools.
Jane Griffin, principal of Winnfield High School, authored the proposition for separate championships. She said “the playing field is not level” because “we don’t get to pick the brightest, the strongest or the richest” students at public schools.
She said she has heard of private schools “recruiting kids at the playground level” but public schools have to accept every student who lives in the attendance zone.
“It is not a perfect plan,” said Barry Sebren of Franklin Parish High School, but it could work.
Louis Cook, administrator, athletic director and head coach at Notre Dame High School in Acadia Parish, said the new system “sells one group of kids short and doesn’t do justice to the other” because they can’t necessarily compete against the best.
When Cortez asked if the system is “fixable,” Cook said “It’s going to take some give and take, but there are some things we could do.”