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Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
SALT LAKE CITY - A day after the group that governs high school sports considers finalizing changes to its policy-making board, Utah legislators will consider whether to make those changes part of Utah law.
The bill, entitled Public School Membership in Associations, is sponsored by Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, but it's the result of several weeks of work by Gibson; House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper; and a collection of people; including state school board members; superintendents; the Utah High School Activities Association's executive director; the chairman of the UHSAA's Board of Trustees; and four coaches.
Hughes and Gibson gathered the group to address issues that Hughes said have cropped up repeatedly for years.
"If you look at this bill, what it's clearly centered around are the problems, the confusion of process, the lack of clear understanding about how decisions are made; it's about transparency and accountability," Hughes said of the bill that will go before the House Education Committee Wednesday at 8 a.m.
That bill spells out the number and makeup of the UHSAA's board of trustees and creates a new hearing panel for appeals, made up of three members nominated by the UHSAA but appointed by the State School Board.
It also makes the group, which is now a private nonprofit but state actor, subject to the same open meetings laws and rules that govern state agencies.
Hughes said that "what's been lacking" is clarity about how the association operates, how rules are applied, and especially when and why exemptions are made. He said there is a perception that the UHSAA is inconsistent and not accountable to anyone outside of its own governing bodies.
"Maybe they're more perception problems than reality, but that's been a lingering problem with the Activities Association," Hughes said. "That's what this bill remedies."
When Hughes and Gibson convened the meetings a few weeks ago, they said they were interested in creating legislation that addressed those issues. Hughes said it's the largest working group he's ever assembled, and he learned a lot from the process.
In fact, he said, the bill that is being proposed looks nothing like he thought it would.
"I thought it would be a lot more prescriptive," he said, noting they'd originally intended to include transfer rules and exemptions. Discussions with UHSAA officials and coaches persuaded the lawmakers to leave that out of state code.
He plans to meet with those in the working group one more time this afternoon. In the last meeting, UHSAA trustee and North Summit Superintendent Jerre Holmes said the board was willing to make the changes to its governing body but was not supportive of legislation.
There was varying perception among the coaches about whether there would be legislation created from the group, or if the group's efforts were aimed at avoiding legislative measures.
Highland football coach Brody Benson said he's very grateful to be included in the conversations, even if he was slightly bothered that the bill was published before their final meeting.
"It's the first time anybody has asked us coaches about any of this or included us in these kinds of discussions," he said, noting that while public education and teachers take a lot of criticism, there isn't a lot of effort to ask their input in finding solutions. "Going forward on these issues, I feel like I have an ally in Rep. Gibson."
Rowland Hall softball coach Kathy Howa said she understood their purpose differently.
"I am surprised," she said. "I thought we were going to meet one more time to discuss the issues, and then all of a sudden the bill comes out. I really wish they would let the UHSAA deal with this because I think we were working very collaboratively with the school board. I think everything was progressing in a positive manner, and I wish they would have let it continue on that path."
Hughes said no one was trying to play "dirty pool" with the bill's release last week.
"We've got a timing issue," he said, noting there are less than two weeks left in the session. "We've got to get this on an agenda." Legislation was always the end goal, he said, it was simply a matter of what it would look like.
On Feb. 14, the Utah High School Activities Association's Board of Trustees voted to change its governing structure to mirror what's outlined in the proposed legislation, including reducing the number of trustees, who make the rules that govern prep sports in Utah, from 30 members to 15.
The trustees will meet to vote on that change for a second time today, the same day as their last work meeting with Gibson and Hughes.
The trustees have been opposed to any legislation, a message that was delivered to Gibson and Hughes last week by Holmes.
UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff said that while they have found their recent discussions with the state school board and Hughes' group helpful in making positive changes to the organization and some of its rules, the membership of the group, which is the 151 member schools, is still opposed to legislation that mandates the changes.
That same group, incidentally, was nearly unanimously opposed to a similar effort by the State School Board, although that included a new transfer rule, which is, and always has been, one of the most controversial issues facing high school sports.
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