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Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY - For the first time, the Utah State Board of Education passed rules that govern high school sports.
The new rule changes requirements for student athletes transferring from one school to another, requires a yearly audit of the Utah High School Activities Association and creates a new type of appeal process that will review decisions made by the association's hearing panels.
Supporters believe the new rule makes guidelines for retaining athletic eligibility when transferring between schools more clear and enforcement less subjective, while also imposing some governmental oversight on a private organization that oversees public and private schools activities.
"This is a first for the board to draft rules governing athletics," said board member Spencer Stokes, who, along with outgoing board President Dave Crandall, brought the issues to the state board in September. "But there is so much focus on the transfer part of the rule, they're missing that there are a lot of other things in this rule that happens at the intersection of athletics and education."
Currently, high school students who want to transfer from one school to another and take their athletic eligibility with them must provide proof of a hardship or a family move into the boundary of the new school.
Under the new rule, a student who has never played varsity sports would be able to transfer to another school and be eligible for athletics. For example, a student who attended one school as a freshman and sophomore and played multiple sports - but never at the varsity level - could transfer to any other school for any reason and automatically be eligible to play sports.
Opponents of the new rule assert that not only does the Utah State Board of Education not have the authority to write rules governing high school athletics or activities, but they believe the new rule creates loopholes that will make enforcement of recruiting rules more difficult.
"We will abide by what the state board says," said Kristen Betts, chairwoman of the association's board of trustees. "We do have concerns that it will make it harder to enforce recruiting rules."
The new rule was hotly debated for several months, but it ended up passing 9-5 Friday with very little discussion.
That was in part, Stokes said, because the trustees chose to send them a letter he said unraveled "hours" of work engaged in by a subcommittee of school board members and the association's board of trustees that was formed to come to some kind of consensus. While the group made significant changes to the original proposed rule, any hope for a united effort on the issue effectively died when the state board members asked Betts to take the version that passed Friday to the trustees for their input.
Betts and the trustees from the subcommittee took the new rule to the full group of 30 members, some of whom felt they needed to poll each school for feedback from the entities affected by any change in transfer rules.
Betts abided by the trustees decision to send out a survey that asked two questions. In addition to the question the state board requested, which was whether they support the proposed rule, trustees asked if school administrators felt the state board should be creating any rules at all governing high school athletics and activities.
The results of that survey showed the schools were overwhelmingly opposed to both the proposed rule (128-8) and the state board's involvement in the issue (131-5).
"That was the argument in September," Stokes said. "At the end of the day, that was the heartburn I had. For all the good, productive conversations we had, the letter came out of left field."
He said he was surprised at the survey and the letter that said the trustees don't feel the state board has the legal authority to write policy governing extracurricular activities.
Stokes said board members got involved because they get complaints from high schools about issues governed by the Utah High School Activities Association and yet they have no oversight with the group. He is a voting member of the association's board of trustees, but he said he didn't attend the recent meetings where the survey and letters were drafted because he wanted to allow them to be free to discuss the issue without his influence.
Betts said the trustees were attempting to honor the state board's request by asking individual schools how their leaders felt about both issues.
The board of trustees is made up of school board officials, superintendents or principals from every district in the state. They write rules and conduct hearings for the association, as well as oversee postseason tournaments alongside the association's executive committee.
When the trustees finalized the letter to the state board, which was delivered to them by email Thursday, Betts said she, too, felt those subcommittee meetings were extremely productive and enlightening for both bodies in understanding each other.
The new policy will go through the administrative rules process now, and are scheduled to go into effect for the 2017-18 school year.
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