The search continues for equality on high school fields and in gyms across Ohio.
The complex issue of competitive balance between public and private high schools is triggering a complicated solution.
For the fourth straight year, principals from member schools of the Ohio High School Athletic Association are voting on a proposal tackling how schools are classified for divisions in team sports.
“There’s probably a simpler way,” Madison principal Rob Peterson said. “I think we’re really complicating this thing.”
Currently schools are put into divisions based strictly on enrollment. There are seven divisions in football, three in soccer and four in all other team sports. But the latest proposal would include a pair of multipliers for kids who open enroll to public schools or who live outside designated areas for private schools.
“I think the proposal has some pros and cons,” Northmor principal Chad Redmon said. “I’m not convinced it’s still the right solution.”
The crux of the issue is private schools are winning regional and state championships at a much higher rate than public schools. With roughly 18 percent of OHSAA membership being private schools, they are winning over 40 percent of the state championships and their representation in regional and state tournaments is much higher than 18 percent.
Even with open enrollment a reality at most public schools for 20 years, private schools still bring in more kids from broader areas than traditional school boundaries. But the latest proposal runs public and private schools through a similar equation.
“It’s a formula everyone is going to use,” Shelby assistant principal Kevin Calver said, also a member of the OHSAA Northwest District Board. “We have public schools that can attract kids because it has a great football or volleyball program. It’s a case of who is playing with their own kids instead of having kids move in.”
Last year’s proposal failed by just 19 votes out of 635 counted ballots. Nearly 200 schools — including Mansfield Senior and St. Peter’s — either didn’t turn in a ballot, turned it in late or had it disqualified. This year’s version uses a similar formula, only it adds a second multiplier so it’s not as punitive to schools that have kids who don’t live in the district but have gone to that school since before seventh grade.
“I think it’s the best thing they’ve offered so far,” Calver said.
Buckeye Central principal Jay Zeiter agreed.
“I think it’s a little better thought out than it previously was, but there are still some questions,” Zeiter said. “I want to make sure it’s beneficial to all our schools.”
The OHSAA is holding town hall meetings at four sites across the state for administrators. Many north central Ohio school officials will attend one Tuesday in Bluffton to learn more about the nuances of the latest proposal and how it differs from a year ago. Voting will be done by mail between May 1 and 15.
“I know there’s no way to make it 100 percent totally competitively balanced, but I want to hear what they have to say before I make my decision,” Zeiter said. “I’m more in favor of it this year than I was last year.”
Count Shelby principal John Gies among those willing to give this proposal a try.
“I would agree we need to do something,” Gies said. “I don’t know if this is the right thing and if this is how it’s going to look like when all is said and done, but I believe we need to do something and this is as good a start as any.”
A year ago, a school like Mansfield Christian would have been hammered by the proposal. Through a quirk in geography, MCS sits in a corner of Madison’s district but only draw seven percent of its students from there.
This year’s boys soccer team that made it to the Division III state championship game had 22 players in its program from grades 9 to 12. Using last year’s formula that stated players from outside the public district in which the private school is found would count as six for soccer, Mansfield Christian would have needed to add 132 to its enrollment of 81 boys since no one on the team resides in the Madison district. That would have pushed the Flames’ count to 213, or 13 over the cutoff between Division II and III.
The latest proposal addresses that issue. Because 21 of the 22 players have been attending MCS since before seventh grade, none of them would be added to the team’s count. The one player who attended MCS for years, left in eighth grade to attend a public school, then came back would count as six, giving the team the less punitive figure of 87 which is well below the cutoff of divisions.
“We are unlikely to change under the new proposal,” MCS Superintendent Cy Smith said. “But some of our competition the further we go into the tournament like with Cincinnati Summit Country Day who we played in the finals, they may be likely to change and bump up.
“In the long run, it may help us.”
St. Peter’s Principal Tressa Reith doesn’t like the proposal and will be voting against it.
“I don’t understand the purpose of the people who are starting this. Everybody is in the situation where we don’t get the number of students we want,” Reith said. “I don’t think the open enrollment schools would opt for it either.”
If the fourth version of competitive balance doesn’t pass, the fear is there will be a push to separate public and private schools when it comes to postseason play.
“It’s a shame if that happens, Reith said.
In recent years, Peterson has shifted his thinking in regards to a split.
“These formulas are complicating things so much. You’re going to spend so much time checking things and doing your counts,” he said. “Maybe it is time to just split the publics and the privates if there is such a disparity in how kids arrive at the schools.”
As a member of the Central District, Northmor is exposed to dominate parochial programs like those found at Ready, Hartley and Newark Catholic.
“They’ve eliminated us from some of the tournament play, but as long as we’re all being treated the same and there’s no recruiting, then I have no issues with that,” Redmon said of playing private schools.
Gies and Smith, leaders of public and private schools, see this proposal as the lesser of two evils.
“I think going to separate tournaments would really hurt high school sports,” Gies said, adding that private schools would likely leave the OHSAA and form their own organization with recruiting and scholarships as options. “It would be open season and there would be nothing to stop them from coming after our kids.”
“If you tell me that’s the logical next step, then let’s try this versus that because we’re certainly opposed to separate tournaments,” Smith said.
Ontario principal Chris Smith admits it’s a complicated issue and sees the latest proposal as a bandage.
“I like that schools are more accountable for students who attend their school who are not residents of their district, which is a lot of private schools, but it doesn’t create that equal playing field,” he said. “It will help the issue, but I don’t think it solves the problem. Those private schools are still benefiting from those athletes.”
So the search may continue.