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Perceived private school edge has some PIAA affiliates speaking of ‘secession’

Archbishop Wood running back Nasir Peoples (5) races away from Gateway defender Brendan Mojocha in the PIAA Class 5A football championship last Dec. 8 at Hersheypark Stadium. Wood’s football team, one of many private schools known to draw players from a variety of areas, is a perennial power. (Mark Palczewski/For Digital First Media)

When John Sarandrea said yes a year ago, he didn’t know how much weight was behind the question.

The WPIAL needed a new superintendent’s representative to its board, and Sarandrea, a former basketball coach now heading the New Castle Area School District, thought he was up to the task.

Soon into that endeavor, the role’s main task was explained: Superintendents wanted to delve into competitive balance in the PIAA. Would Sarandrea take the lead in canvassing District 7’s administrators?

New Castle’s Malik Hooker looks down at the trophy after New Castle defeated La Salle in the 2014 PIAA AAAA basketball final. Despite that triumph, the District 7 school is the epicenter for a push to separate public and private schools for PIAA championships. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

That inquest led to the “PIAA Playoff Equity Summit” next Tuesday in State College, open to public-school administrators to ascertain how to rectify competitive imbalance that has led to an overwhelming proportion of PIAA championships won by private and charter (so-called “non-boundary”) schools. Topics on the agenda, like separate championships and even a possible secession from the PIAA, were once regarded as third rails in this conversation, but they’ve gained traction as animosity has mounted.

While the PIAA has proposed remedies via rule changes to toughen transfer guidance (which could be approved as soon as Wednesday at its bimonthly board meeting also in State College), many in the public sphere believe them to be ineffective half-measures.

“We just feel that we’ve not been heard yet as a group, and when I say we, I mean the 500 traditional school districts,” Millcreek School District superintendent William Hall told The Daily Times. “Our voice has not been heard. That’s the idea behind the summit, to get as many people in a room as possible and come out of there with the message that we want to see some changes.”

“All of us who are attending the meeting do not believe the PIAA solution is the answer. We do not,” Sarandrea said. “We feel it’s too little too late. It doesn’t address the issue of different districts of the PIAA addressing the transfer issue in different ways. … It won’t solve anything, and kicking the can down the road two years and bumping teams up classifications won’t solve anything.”

READ: The struggle of competitive balance in the PIAA

Sarandrea has become a visible leader, and the effort gained steam via Hall, hailing from Erie County (District 10). Sarandrea started in District 7, asking administrators if they believed private schools held a competitive advantage. Of 108 respondents (both public and private), 86 percent found public schools at a disadvantage and advocated for separate tournaments, per results published in May. Hall broadcast the same survey statewide to administrators and coaches of public schools only. He got 338 replies, 93 percent favoring separate tournaments. The results precipitated meetings with legislators, including State Rep. Robert Matzie, D-16 of Ambridge, and State Sen. Jay Costa, D-43 of Forest Hills, both of whom sit on the Pennsylvania Athletic Oversight Committee (PAOC).

The Equity Summit seeks to articulate the wishes of public schools. As of Monday, Sarandrea said that 102 districts have RSVPed to the day of workshops and conferences. Every PIAA district save for District 12, comprising the Philadelphia Catholic League and Public League, is represented. The goal is to set a unified position statement and plan of action. That might include, Sarandrea said, departing the PIAA.

“One of the options to be discussed is that if in fact a large number of us do not feel that this is an appropriate solution to the problems, what interest is there to take another course of action up to and included seceding from the union?” he said.

The PIAA has proposed several measures to reduce imbalances. In the spring, it instituted a 21-day mandatory sit-out for in-season transfers and bars eligibility for any player who has already participated in a number of games exceeding 50 percent of a PIAA season at another school. On the table Wednesday is the second reading of an amendment banning any athlete transferring in high school from participating in postseason competition in their first year at a new school. A hardship waiver is also under debate, and the board could pass on second reading a success factor system, which classifies schools using enrollment plus points based on postseason success and transfers gained.

Proposed amendments require three readings, unless the board votes to suspend protocol for immediate implementation.

Hall and Sarandrea believe these measures only defer the problem. Hall’s high school, McDowell, for instance, was classified in 6A for football and basketball in the last two-year cycle. Adding a success factor will elevate perennial District 10 powers Cathedral Prep, Villa Maria and Kennedy Catholic into their postseason crosshairs. (Such is the distortion in District 10 that nine football programs played up from 4A to 5A to avoid Cathedral Prep).

Sarandrea’s New Castle has enjoyed success, including the 2014 PIAA AAAA boys basketball title over La Salle. But that’s the outlier rather than the norm.

While the meeting seeks to shape the group’s mission, attendees share certain core beliefs. They include the insufficiency of proposed changes, including the competition formula, and a belief that the legislature needn’t be involved partitioning public and private schools for playoffs

“There’s recognition, and I think that’s a good thing at the PIAA level, that we have to do something, but so far what we’ve seen, we think, is not enough,” Hall said. “And we think the answer is in separating the public and private schools for the postseason.”

Sarandrea cited several examples that the group has studied. He played basketball in New York City at Christ The King and coached at St. Nicholas of Tolentine, both Catholic Schools. He holds the New York system, with separate organizations for different areas/school types that pit their champions against each other, as preferable. New Jersey, which organizes a Tournament of Champions in certain sports for public and parochial champs all within one athletic association, was also mentioned.

The legislative issue appears to be an intractable point. Legislators and PIAA executive director Dr. Robert Lombardi believe separate tournaments require the imprimatur of the legislature. Members of the PAOC are reticent to broach the topic. Private schools were incorporated to the previously all-public PIAA in 1972, and support for a legislative decoupling is widely believed to be lacking.

Hall disagrees, offering as proof a desire to remain united in the same organization. This plan wouldn’t restrict who non-boundary schools play in the regular season, as long as they are segregated for playoffs, and Hall frames progress in this arena as dispelling the current adversarial tenor.

The Equity Summit takes a majoritarian view. Hall and Sarandrea believe they have a groundswell of support from public schools, which represent around 75 percent of PIAA’s members. That silent majority possesses great power, if the voices can be harnessed and harmonized.

“It’s not what the legislators want,” Sarandrea said. “I would submit to anybody that if 90 percent of your constituents want something and you ignore that, you would probably not be in a position of authority for too long. And that’s exactly what’s happening here.”



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