Manheim Central vs Penn Hills-PIAA 5A Football Championship (copy)

Manheim Central's Colby Wagner (5) takes off for the end zone after a catch against Penn Hills during second-half action of the PIAA Class 5A football championship game at Hersheypark Stadium on Friday, Dec. 7, 2018. Legislation is afoot that would open a path to separate playoffs for the state's boundary and nonboundary schools.

STATE COLLEGE — State law has long been an obstacle to separate playoffs for public and private schools in Pennsylvania high school sports.

A state lawmaker announced plans Thursday to dramatically change that.

Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre County, introduced a proposed change to a 1972 law that would clear a path to separation.

He presented the idea to attendees at the Pennsylvania State Football Coaches Association convention at the Penn Stater Hotel and Convention Center and then in a news conference accompanied by seven members of the PSFCA Board of Directors, all of them public school football coaches.

“Many of those schools’ sports programs have become so large that they’re dominating playoffs, and that’s not fair,” Conklin said, referring to private schools.

“My legislation would change a 1972 law, removing a mandate that these schools compete with public schools, and allow for separate playoffs.”

The law

The 1972 law, Act 219, was enacted when Catholic schools joined the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association. It reads: “Private schools shall be permitted, if OTHERWISE qualified, to BE MEMBERS OF THE PENNSYLVANIA INTERSCHOLASTIC ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION.”

That law has long been interpreted, by the PIAA and the state assembly’s Athletic Oversight Committee, to prohibit separate public-private playoffs.

Conklin is proposing adding the following:

“For the purposes of playoffs and awarding championships, the (PIAA) shall establish separate playoff systems and championships for athletics for public schools and private schools admitted (to PIAA) in subsection (a).”

“What this doesn’t so is punish anybody,” Conklin said. “If a school wants to continue to bring in players from West Virginia, they can.”

Conklin said the revised bill will be introduced Tuesday. He hopes it will attract co-sponsors from both parties, and hopes for serious movement toward the bill becoming law by the end of the summer.

Public-private fight taken to PIAA competition committee

‘Drastic’ change

Tom Smith, a principal and assistant football coach at Bishop McCort High School in the Johnstown area, attended the news conference, he said, “to make sure nothing is misrepresented.”

Smith pointed out that many public schools admit students from outside their boundaries.

“This is a drastic change,” Smith said later. “I was here to make sure all the facts were out there, and I do think there was a misrepresentation.

“I think we have a fair playing field. I think people are trying to manufacture state titles.”

The numbers

More than 80 percent of Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association members are public, or “boundary” schools. In football, the number is 90 percent.

Schools are divided into classifications based upon their enrollment (separate male and female enrollment) for two-year periods. They may elect to play in a higher classification, but few do so.

Over the last three years, 78 percent of state basketball champions, and 60 percent of state finalists, have been “nonboundary,” the current term for private and charter schools.

The football numbers are more balanced. From 2013-16, nine of a possible 12 state champs, and 13 of 18 finalists, were nonboundary. From 2016-18, however, eight of 18 champs (in a six-class format) and 13 of 36 finalists, were nonboundary.

Dozens of Pennsylvania public school boards have passed resolutions in favor of separate boundary/nonboundary playoffs.

A group of about 150 Pennsylvania public schools, known as the Equity Summit, organized last summer. They presented a proposal to the PIAA Board of Directors in July that called for a six-class structure with four classes for boundary schools and two for nonboundaries. The proposal is opposed by the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference and the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools.

The PIAA directors have acknowledged that issues of competitive fairness exist and created a Competition Committee, which has passed measures tightening rules on athletic transfers and a “success formula,” which would force schools to move up in class based on sustained success at the district and state level.

There has been little official reaction to Conklin’s proposal, partly because officials hadn’t seen it before last night.

PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi said Thursday, “I’m as curious as as anyone else.”

Lombardi pointed out that the Competition Committee reforms, enacted last year, hadn’t had a chance to work yet.

State Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster County), who serves on the Athletic Oversight Committee, said in an email Thursday that he “hasn’t received any information on the legislative proposal, and hasn’t had any interaction with Representative Conklin on this issue since (he) has been involved with the Athletic Oversight Committee.”

“We hope (Conklin) is open to discussing the legislation with all parties first,” Sean McAleer, director of education for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, said Thursday.

“This is the first we are hearing about it.”