A pair of bills in the New Jersey state legislature could radically alter the look and feel of high school athletics in the state.
There are two bills currently under consideration: A5254 and S3447. Both contain provisions that would allow public high schools in the same district to enter into cooperative programs if the schools are unable to field individual varsity teams.
This would open the door, hypothetically, for one Northern Valley baseball program made up of players from NV/Demarest and NV/Old Tappan. A basketball program that combined players from Pascack Valley and Pascack Hills, and one football team from Wayne Hills and Wayne Valley.
This issue came to light this past spring when members of the West Windsor-Plainsboro school district approached the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association about merging its football program from its two large high schools (West Windsor-Plainsboro North and West Windsor-Plainsboro South).
At the time, the NJSIAA had a rule prohibiting schools that were a Group 3 or Group 4 from combining for football.
That by-law was recently altered by a full membership vote by the NJSIAA three weeks ago to allow larger schools to co-op for football, but with certain restrictions, including playoff ineligibility and a limited time the co-op can exist.
North Jersey high school athletics is replete with co-op programs in many sports, largely due to the number of small schools that don’t have enough interested athletes to make up an entire sports team. Some have become extremely successful, like the Emerson/Park Ridge wrestling program, and the Waldwick/Midland Park football team just to name two.
But there is a lot of resistance to the idea of allowing big schools to co-op.
“Every school wants to keep its identity,” said NV/Demarest athletic director Greg Butler. “There is a tremendous alumni support and following and to lose that history….the only reason you’d ever do that is because you’d lose a program.”
NV/Demarest and NV/Old Tappan already co-op for ice hockey, but Butler said that was done to keep the program alive and provide the opportunity for kids to play.
“We only had five, six kids going out for the team, so the combination with Old Tappan was a no-brainer,” said Butler.
However, Butler does admit that combining programs does provide a cost savings that could be attractive to local Boards of Education.
Bill S3447 also includes clauses that would allow student-athletes at a non-public school to compete at the public school in their district if that sport is not offered. One example would be a swimmer who attends St. Joseph Regional and lives in Allendale. St. Joseph Regional doesn’t field a swim team, but under this bill, they could compete for the swim program at Northern Highlands.
The bill also contains a provision that allows kids who attend a charter school to participate in school-sponsored interscholastic events, and home schooled kids would also be free to compete for their local school, as long as they provide proof of residency.
Most North Jersey Boards of Education handle these matters on case-by-case basis. Butler said in the case of Northern Valley, if participation is waning in some athletics, the door is open for home schooled kids to join.
Both bills – A5254 is sponsored by Daniel R. Benson (Mercer and Middlesex) and S3447, which is sponsored by Shirley Turner (Hunterdon and Mercer) and Linda Greenstein (Mercer and Middlesex) – have caused the leadership at the NJSIAA to call for their dismissal.
“Both bills, as written, will allow schools to drop programs and limit playing opportunities rather than create them – and the legislation would actually be replacing a level playing field with competitive imbalance,” NJSIAA assistant director Larry White said in a release put out by the organization. “Fewer teams mean fewer opportunities for students to experience education-based athletics. Every student, parent, administrator and coach should be very, very concerned.”
The NJSIAA continues to wrestle with problems regarding transfers and student eligibility. It also has worked hard to maintain the balance of allowing as many kids to participate in high school athletics while keeping a competitive system.
“The legislature needs to slow this down and discuss this matter with high school athletic directors and superintendents,” Northern Highlands athletic director Bob Williams said. “The unintended consequences could have a significant negative impact on New Jersey high school sports. There is no need to rush these proposals through.”