Private schools: Proposed legislation oversteps bounds of fairness

DAVID R JENNINGS
Under proposed legislation to be voted on this week at the CHSAA legislative council meeting, a new set of guidelines would govern whether super-successful private school programs like Holy Family girls basketball would have to move up a classification based on their level of success over a four-year period. If evaluated over its four-year run of state titles, for instance, Holy Family would be forced to move up. But if examined over the last four years, during which the Tigers won three state titles and made one Sweet 16 appearance, they would not meet the threshold required to force a move to 4A.

A level playing field.

That’s what proponents of a proposal up for vote this week at the Colorado High School Activities Association legislative council meeting believe they are trying to accomplish in introducing a measure that would force private schools to play up a classification if they achieve a certain level of postseason success over a four-year span.

Yet a level playing field is exactly what dissenters believe is missing from the proposed legislation that, at least locally, is most likely to affect the athletic programs at Holy Family High School.

For the backers of the initiative, the hope is to at least make a strike back against the perceived advantage private schools have in selecting their student-athletes. For schools like Holy Family, it feels as if they could be unfairly punished for their success.

“From where I stand, this seems like a knee-jerk reaction with this proposal,” Holy Family athletic director Ben Peterson said. “I have not seen any data that would support a proposal like this being brought to the table. All of the data I’ve looked at doesn’t support this. There are a lot of moving pieces with this proposal and it doesn’t seem that well thought-out.”

Indeed, compelling data for both sides of the argument does exist.

For instance, this past fall, covering all classifications and both genders, a total of 34 team state championships were awarded. Only seven of those went to private schools, including Holy Family’s 3A cross country title.

Over the 2012-13 winter season, a total of 19 programs collected state team titles. Five of those went to private schools. If one were to focus on the 10 state basketball fields (five classifications, both genders), it shows the state quarterfinal fields for all four sets of 5A and 4A brackets boasted just three private schools among the 32 teams. However in Class 3A, which features the largest concentration of private programs, half the quarterfinal fields were comprised of private schools.

A look at the recent history in Class 3A — the home or former home to Holy Family and such Denver metro-area private institutions as Kent Denver, Faith Christian, Denver Christian (now in 2A) and Lutheran (now in 2A) — reveals what proponents of the measure believe proves the competitive advantage enjoyed by private schools. During the past 11 basketball seasons, 17 of the 22 3A state basketball titles have been won by private schools. Those 3A basketball title numbers are buoyed by streaks of four consecutive championships won by the Faith Christian boys and Holy Family girls.

As is often the case in such matters, these numbers can be referenced by either side of the argument. Are private schools dominating 3A basketball because they enjoy a competitive advantage stemming from their selective enrollment? Or is it simply a reflection of the greater volume of private schools in 3A colliding with a uniquely talented generation of athletes?

“Over the past few years, there has been a lot of conversation about a competitive imbalance, and that’s a big piece of this,” CHSAA associate commissioner Bert Borgmann said. “A lot of concerns have been expressed to our staff, to the board, that there really is a competitive imbalance with schools that can restrict who goes to that school. This is a conversation piece that has to be on the table.”

The number of points a team needs to collect before it is forced to play up a classification is fairly substantial. The point system gives four points for a state quarterfinal appearance, six for a Final Four appearance, eight for a state runner-up finish and 10 for a state title. If the proposal passes, any team that collects 32 points over four seasons would be forced to move up a class.

Tallied over a four-year span, Holy Family’s girls hoops team would have had to spend a two-year cycle as a 4A program after its run of four consecutive titles from 2008 through 2011. However making four consecutive Final Four appearances, even with a lone state title thrown into the mix, still would keep a team in its original classification.

Besides the perception that they potentially will be punished for their success, there are practical matters that have schools like Holy Family balking at the proposed legislation. For instance, if the potential new rule breaks up the 3A Metro League across multiple sports, ADs such as Peterson could be forced to juggle the management of several conferences instead of just one. Nevermind the potential scheduling and travel headaches.

“My first blush at this, if you will, is that it’s an over-generalization,” Holy Family baseball coach Marc Cowell said. “There is a lot of gray area in this proposal that I think needs to be looked at more closely.”

There are boundless questions surrounding the proposal.

What can be done if a private 5A program, such as Regis Jesuit or Valor Christian football, surpass the four-year, 32-point threshold?

With open enrollment already so prevalent, kids routinely cross cities to go to the school of their choice. Should perennially dominant public school programs such as Broomfield girls basketball or Cheyenne Mountain volleyball be subject to similar guidelines?

And when the inevitable day arrives when a team finds itself in a position where a big win would clinch a state title game berth, yet also doom the program to a tougher classification the following year, could the integrity of the competition be compromised?

Regardless of the outcome of Thursday’s vote, there is a good chance these questions will still linger.

Follow Pat on Twitter: @prooney07