Public-private debate flares again

By Joe Scalzo


On Dec. 3, 1999, Paul Hulea became the first Ohio high school football coach to win 15 games in one season when he led the Poland Bulldogs to a state title.

With the title, he became the seventh Mahoning Valley coach to lead a public school to a state crown.

He’s also the last.

In 13 years since, no public school team in the Valley has claimed a state football title and only two — Warren Harding in 2002 and Canfield in 2005 — have even made it to the state finals.

The path soon may get easier.

In May, more than 800 high school principals will decide the future of Ohio high school sports. They will vote on a referendum that would create separate tournaments for public and non-public schools.

Poland won its only football state title by defeating a Catholic school, Columbus Bishop Watterson, 20-13 in 1999. When asked if it would have been tainted had there been separate tournaments, Hulea hedged.

“If you talk to the kids on your team, they’ll tell you they can play with anybody and they can beat anybody,” he said.

But how does Hulea feel?

“I don’t know,” he said. “This could be the greatest thing since sliced bread or it could be a complete bust.”

Added Canfield athletic director Greg Cooper, who is wary of separate tournaments, “It’s almost like the health care act. We have to pass it to see what’s in it.”

how this happened

This is the third time the Ohio High School Athletic Association’s membership will vote on this issue. Similar proposals were voted down in 1978 and 1994.

The latest proposal stems from this fact: From 1999-2010, non-public schools made up 18 percent of the OHSAA’s membership but won about 43 percent of the state titles.

Last year, Canfield’s girls soccer team lost to Cuyahoga Falls Walsh Jesuit in the regional final. The Cardinals are a closed school district — one of just six schools in the tri-county area that does not offer open enrollment — while Walsh drew players from 14 different districts, Cooper said.

“It was all legal,” he said. “They all flowed to [Walsh] because it was a top-notch program.”

Two years ago, Cooper was part of a competitive balance committee that tried to address that issue. The result was a complicated proposal that would have assigned divisions based on things like socioeconomics, school boundaries and recent success.

It failed narrowly, 332-303. After some tweaks, it failed again last year, 339-301.

“That was, essentially, our middle ground proposal,” said Tim Stried, the OHSAA’s director of information services. “When a group of public school superintendents [from Wayne County] first started this process in 2009, we essentially told them, ‘Hey, can you let the OHSAA have a shot at this first?’

“They were willing to work with us and willing to wait. It failed twice, so now they said, ‘All right, now it’s our turn.’”

Two weeks ago, The Vindicator e-mailed the principals of the 49 schools in its coverage area asking this question: If the vote were held today, would you be more likely to vote yes (for separate tournaments) or no? Twenty-eight schools responded.

Five respondents were non-public schools (Ursuline, Mooney, Warren JFK, Youngstown Christian, Heartland Christian), and all said they would vote no.

Of the 23 public schools that responded, 15 would vote yes, four would likely vote no and four were undecided.

What it means

The OHSAA’s commissioner, Dr. Dan Ross, opposes split tournaments. But Stried said the organization won’t campaign against the measure until after a Jan. 10 board of directors meeting.

“That will be a big key for us and me personally in finding out what direction we want to take in terms of our stance,” he said.

Still, Stried said splitting the tournaments could have unintended consequences, especially if non-public schools vote to break off from the OHSAA and form their own organization. The change could mean a significant loss of revenue from postseason tournaments — which is enough that it pays for OHSAA operational costs and for its $700,000 annual catastrophic insurance policy.

Schools currently do not pay for these services. Less revenues could push costs onto schools.

A change could also cut back on the number of divisions in each sport, including football, which is set to expand to seven divisions next fall.

“You would see all kinds of ripple effects,” said Stried. “I can say this: We wouldn’t be able to create entirely new tournaments for both sides. We would go bankrupt.”

The OHSAA’s postseason attendance has dwindled over the last decade and Stried said the cost of running separate tournaments — which includes facilities, officials and staff — would put a huge strain on the budget.

The bigger fear is that non-public schools would band together and write new bylaws that would allow for athletic scholarships and open recruiting. The OHSAA bylaws forbid providing financial aid or scholarships to a student-athlete based on athletic ability, although non-public schools can provide academic scholarships and need-based assistance.

Randy Rair is an assistant superintendent for the Youngstown Diocese, which includes Mooney, Ursuline, Warren JFK, Canton Central Catholic and Louisville St. Thomas Aquinas. He strongly opposes the split and warned that if the referendum passes, “we would look at all our options. We’d need to evaluate what’s in the best interest of our schools.

“I think we need to challenge our kids and tell them to strive to compete and be excellent. When we get into weighing one kid’s worth more than another, I personally have a problem with that.”

When asked if he thought the referendum would pass, Rair said, “We’re not doing our own polling, but I can tell you there are five schools in the OHSAA that are going to vote no.”

Cardinal Mooney principal John Young graduated from Mooney and sent his kids there, but he also spent 16 years as Liberty’s principal and 23 years in the Brookfield school system. He was at Brookfield when the Warriors won the 1978 state football title and at Liberty when the Leopards defeated Ursuline and nearly beat Mooney (the eventual state champs) in the 2004 playoffs.

“I just think when you talk to the coaches and the kids and the parents, and you take the administrators out of it, that you’re [watering] down the competition when you split the tournaments,” he said. “I think it’s a bad idea.”

how about open enrollment?

While private schools benefit from being able to draw athletes from multiple school districts, most Ohio public schools can do the same thing with open enrollment, which has exploded in popularity over the last 15-20 years.

“When I was at Liberty, we were getting good athletes from [Youngstown],” said Young. “Not that it’s recruiting — and I know every school doesn’t have open enrollment — but if you better your program, they’ll come.

“Open enrollment has created a whole different situation than 15 years ago. I think it’s balanced it out.”

According to the Ohio Department of Education, 516 of the 664 public school districts in Ohio (78 percent) offer some form of open enrollment. A minority of those (91) limit open enrollment to adjacent school districts.

Open enrollment is even more common in the Valley, with 40 of the 46 public schools offering open enrollment, including every school in Trumbull and Columbiana counties.

Four Trumbull County schools (Badger, Champion, Newton Falls and Southington) limit transfers to adjacent school districts while there are no limitations among Columbiana County schools.

Seven Mahoning County schools offer statewide open enrollment, while East is limited to adjacent school districts. Six schools do not offer open enrollment: Boardman, Campbell, Canfield, Poland, South Range and Springfield.

With four out of five schools offering open enrollment, many coaches say it’s become less of an advantage. But, as one football coach said, “We might have the same number of kids in our high school as a private school, but most of our kids can’t walk and chew gum at the same time. And we’re in the same division.”

But, two coaches at a non-open enrollment school admitted it’s become tougher to compete with public schools that do offer it.

“We all know what’s going on out there,” one said.

Football, basketball king

While the referendum would separate tournaments for all sports, the vote is driven by two: football and basketball. Those sports garner the most fan interest and the most revenue for their schools’ athletic departments — by far.

From 1999-2000, private schools won 33 percent of the boys basketball state championships and 52 percent of the girls titles. In football, 50 percent of the titles were won by private schools.

The Mahoning Valley has had just two girls basketball state champions over the past decade (West Branch and Ursuline, both in 2004) and it hasn’t had a boys state basketball champion since 1994. So hoops isn’t a big issue locally.

But football is.

Of the Valley’s 20 football state championships since 1972, 13 have been won by private schools: Mooney has eight, Ursuline four and JFK one.

Since Poland’s 1999 championship, Mooney and Ursuline have competed in 11 state finals, with each winning four. Warren JFK lost its only appearance.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Sean Baker was a junior at Canfield in 2005, starting at safety and splitting time at quarterback for the Division II runners-up. The Cardinals lost to Toledo Central Catholic 31-29 in the championship game.

“I see the pros and cons of both sides,” Baker said of splitting the tournaments. “As a player, I probably wouldn’t want it. You want to compete with the best. And in basketball, I would definitely want to compete against everyone.

“If you split the tournaments, there’s always that question about who would win. I guess it’d be great if they could have the public and private schools play each other at the end, but that’s a lot of games for high school.”

Hulea, who is now an assistant coach for Poland, would rather see the football playoffs expanded to include more teams from more divisions than separate tournaments.

“People think I’m crazy, but I hope they go to 10 divisions,” he said. “The way I see it is, if you’re in the 10th division, nobody is going to say, ‘Your state championship sucks. Look how good our state championship is.’

“I don’t know what’s right or wrong when it comes to splitting the tournaments, but I do know this: private schools, they lose games, too.”

Non-publics hold edge

In fact, private schools lose quite a bit in some sports. From 1999-2010, public schools won all five state bowling titles and dominated sports such as softball (94 percent), boys track (84 percent) and gymnastics (83 percent).

And several coaches and administrators pointed to this year’s football playoffs as proof that public schools are more than holding their own. Kirtland, for instance, defeated Ursuline in Division V before losing to a public school, Coldwater, in the state final. And Mentor defeated Cleveland parochial powers Lakewood St. Edward and Cleveland St. Ignatius in back-to-back weeks before losing to a public school, Toledo Whitmer, in the state semifinals. (Whitmer then lost to Cincinnati Moeller, one of three private schools to win football championships in the six divisions.)

Kirtland principal Dr. Lynn Campbell admits he’s torn over the issue, believing non-public can build “stacked teams with unbelievable depth at most key positions,” while worrying that separate tournaments creates questions about which team is the “real” champion. He also worries that it disenfranchises some of Ohio’s taxpayers, who pay tuition to non-public schools and taxes for public schools.

“I would hate for some kind of resentment to form, thus driving away voters, because in the end, it is about academic performance and preparation of all kids for the good of the entire community, not just sports,” said Campbell, a YSU graduate who lived in East Palestine and still has family in Poland.

But because sports are so connected to a community’s identity, there is a fear that non-public schools, who already use sporting success as advertisements for their institutions, will focus more energies on athletics, if only for survival.

“Let’s be honest — there are people who wish we didn’t exist,” said Rair. “So as long as these people exist, these types of things will pop up.”

Not going away

One thing is certain — this issue isn’t going away.

From 1999 to 2010, non-public schools won at least 50 percent of the titles in 12 of the OHSAA’s 22 sports, including every boys swimming title and 92 percent of the field hockey crowns. And non-public schools won more than 18 percent of the titles in 17 of the 22 sports.

But not all private schools are the same.

Lakewood St. Edward, Walsh Jesuit and Cincinnati St. Xavier won 18 state titles over that 10-year span.

Warren JFK won just two.

And public schools like Cleveland Glenville and Akron Buchtel are magnets for kids from all over their cities.

“When you’re comparing schools, it’s not apples and oranges,” said one area football coach. “It’s apples and gorillas.”

Still, the controversy centers around non-public schools, a problem that isn’t unique to Ohio.

In 1996-97, Athletic Business magazine surveyed 43 of the 45 state athletic associations whose public and non-public members competed head-to-head in state tournaments. It found that non-public schools won an average of 18.4 percent of the titles despite making up 13.1 percent of the schools.

When the publication did a similar survey this fall, it found “the championship chasm between public and non-public schools has widened significantly in some states.”

Some states, such as Tennessee, have voted to separate the tournaments into public and non-public, but most have chosen to use a “multiplier” to adjust schools’ divisions, a solution that was voted down by OHSAA members each of the last two years.

While no one knows if Ohio will vote to separate the tournaments — “I’d say it’s pretty close to 50-50 at this point,” Cooper said — a no vote won’t necessarily end the debate.

Members can put it on the ballot again in three years.

In the meantime, public school coaches could choose the approach taken by South Range’s Dan Yeagley, whose school doesn’t offer open enrollment but who scheduled two private schools this football season: Warren JFK and Garfield Heights Trinity.

“If you’re going to have to see those schools in the playoffs anyway, you might as well play them [in the season],” he said. “Because guess what? When you get to the playoffs, whether they’re public schools or private schools, there’s only good teams left.”