Split decision: Public vs. private state champs

If you don’t at first succeed, petition and petition again. That’s what a determined group of northeast school administrators has done.

Their goal is to separate Ohio public and private schools in state championships. It’s not fair, they maintain, and they’re not going to take it anymore.

Triway Local Schools superintendent Dave Rice is the latest figurehead.

“Somebody’s name has to be on the petition, and I drew the short straw,” he said.

In reality, Rice represents all public schools in a spirited debate that has been brewing and will not go away. Rice and his fellow Wayne County superintendents recently saw to that on the last day to petition the Ohio High School Athletic Association for the May 1-15 annual referendum voting period.

Rice’s group secured more than 100 signatures from superintendents — 75 were needed — throughout the state to petition for separate public and private state tournaments. The OHSAA board of directors announced on Thursday that the effort is legit. A spring vote is impending.

This isn’t the first time Ohio has addressed separate postseasons. Twice before – in 1978 and ’94 – it was voted on and defeated.

It’s significant that the signature petition was delivered to the OHSAA on Nov. 30. That was the first day of football championship weekend at Canton and Massillon. More than any other sport, the private schools’ domination of football titles has long been a sore point among public school administrators, coaches and fans. Some are more vocal than others; all seem genuinely concerned.

Private schools — all Catholic — won three of the six state football titles this season: Cincinnati Moeller (Division I), Toledo Central Catholic (D-II) and Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary (D-III). That’s the trend. In 2010, Catholic teams won five of six.

Rice’s group has high-end backing.

“I think doing nothing is an extreme,” OHSAA Commissioner Dan Ross has said.

There’s been a lot of posturing by both sides. The Wayne County administrators will not back down. Private school officials — mostly from successful Catholic programs — have threatened to leave the OHSAA if such a vote passes. That would create all kinds of obstacles for both sides, especially if OHSAA would insist on its teams playing members only.

This all was addressed in an unprecedented way the last two years by OHSAA and its landmark Competitive Balance Issue. It was a three-pronged proposal that considered the combination of enrollment, social-economic and tradition factors to determine which divisions schools would be placed.

Like the previous votes for separation, the Competitive Balance Issue also was voted down each time, but not by much. A sticking point was a lack of addressing the disparity in D-I numbers, especially in football. Since then a vote has passed to create a seventh football division, splitting off the top 10 percent D-I schools with the greatest enrollment. That begins next season.

It was Rice’s group that spearheaded the competitive balance effort to “level the playing field.”

Here’s what Rice had to say about that and other hot-button issues:

Q How did this all start?

A The whole thing started with a group of Wayne County superintendents. We’ve been going down this road for about three years now. Some have been more active than others. I’ve just kind of grabbed the ball here in the last few months with this petition piece and helped get that finished off. … This isn’t a problem that just surfaced here in the last week. Again, you have to ask yourself a question, why hasn’t it been addressed?

Q Has there been unforeseen fallout?

A No, not really. It’s all professional. In December of 2009 we surveyed all the superintendents in Ohio and the survey indicated that something needed to change. We didn’t start out on this path for separate tournaments. It’s evolved to this point.

Q How did your group interpret the Competitive Balance Proposal going down?

A I was on the Competitive Balance Committee that (Dr.) Dan Ross had and the last two years we had referendums up for vote and those failed. Last year when it failed, (the OHSAA) said, well, we’re done dealing with it. There aren’t really a whole lot of other alternatives right now.

Q Was there a main sticking point?

A The (voters) who we heard from, the tradition factor was probably one that didn’t go over real well with a lot of people.

Q Would a split between public and private schools make Ohio high school football better?

A That’s going to depend on who you ask and where you’re at in the state. My indirect answer is a separate tournament issue hopefully makes a more fair competitive issue for our student athletes. Other states have separated public and non-public schools and it seems to work for them. I’m not sure that it puts you in a crisis mode.

Q Were you disappointed in the OHSAA not pursuing the Competitive Balance Issue, despite its failures?

A Very much so. This has been a three-year process to this point. You get something that close and then they say, OK, we’re done with it. No, I don’t think you’re done with it. You keep working at it. That’s why we did what we did to keep it on the front burner. If this becomes the answer, so be it. If it doesn’t, let’s keep working to find a better way.

Q Is this an endless loop of annually securing a vote to separate privates from publics until it’s passed?

A My personal goal would be that if it gets voted down and it’s a close vote, that I would still want to continue to work toward finding a solution. The solution obviously wouldn’t be separate tournaments at that point. But a close vote would certainly indicate that something needs to change. It’s like the close vote last spring. The referendum didn’t pass but it didn’t fail by much, either. That tells me that a lot of people want change.

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