Copyright 2016 The Deseret News Publishing Co.
Deseret Morning News (Salt Lake City)
MIDVALE - The debate about changing the way student athletes are allowed to transfer between high schools took a complicated turn last week.
The Utah State School Board wants to know if the 140 schools that make up the Utah High School Activities Association support a rule proposed by the board that would significantly change eligibility rules associated with the transfer of student athletes from one high school to another.
But now many in the association are pushing back and questioning whether the State School Board should even be involved in making rules governing athletics.
It might not be considered a mutiny, but there are heated discussions among those inside the group that's governed high school athletics for nearly 90 years.
The State School Board wants a sense of how the 140 schools feel by Dec. 9.
"The issue that arose was the issue of should the State School Board even be involved in the first place in writing the rule," said Jerre Holmes, an association trustee. He is assigned to a special committee made up of activities association and school board representatives that was formed in the wake of the school board's efforts to take over the rules governing transfer of high school athletes.
"There are really two separate issues," he said.
Holmes told the full UHSAA board of trustees - which is made up of principals, superintendents and elected school board members from every region in the state - in their Nov. 17 meeting that while he was skeptical the groups could come up with a suitable compromise, he was surprised at how much both sides learned and cooperated.
"I learned very quickly that we could communicate with each other, and it was cordial," he said. "We moved from no transfer rule to what we have now."
That shift led to a state board proposal that is much closer to the current rules, but with two significant exceptions. First, any student who hasn't played varsity in a sport can transfer once to another high school and still be eligible for varsity play at the new school.
Second, if families move from the district where their student is enrolled to a new district, the student athlete can attend any school and be eligible for varsity sports. A full family move is an automatic exception in current rules, but the student is only eligible at the school where his new home is located. The proposal means the student can attend any school, in any district, outside of his home district.
Holmes and Kristen Betts, chairwoman of the association's board of trustees, said the special committee worked very hard to understand one other, and they wanted to honor the request to try and survey all of the schools and districts, in order to report to the full state board the feelings of the state's high schools.
But many members of the board of trustees said they wanted to take two votes - one on the proposed rule and another on whether the State School Board should be drafting rules governing athletics.
Rob Cuff, the executive director of the activities association who essentially carries out the wishes of the association's board of trustees and executive committee and has no vote, said they are conducting a poll of every school and district that they will discuss at their realignment meeting on Tuesday.
He understands the trustees' dilemma in wanting to answer the State School Board's question, but also wanting to send a message that the organization doesn't believe the state board should be drafting rules governing athletics.
"The local boards of education set up our association in 1927 for two reasons - so they could focus on academics and so there wouldn't be bias from one school involved in hosting tournaments," Cuff said. "Prior to our association, they'd just play whoever they wanted."
Fairness and finding a way to include as many students as possible in activities and athletics has been at the heart of the Utah High School Activities Association's mission for 89 years, he said. And for most of that time, the association has enjoyed a great working relationship with the State School Board, often changing their bylaws and rules to help the school board keep a focus on academics, while supporting athletics and activities (like debate and music competitions), which both groups traditionally have seen as a way to enhance the educational experience.
Duchene's Stan Young, who represents 1A principals on the association's board of trustees, said the trustees wanted to send the message that the sentiment was unanimous in supporting the subcommittee's efforts to come up with a compromise, but they don't support the state board writing rules that govern extracurricular activities.
"This is a vote of nonsupport coming from the people who are at that level - the principals, the leaders who deal with the transfer issues, all of those who deal with those issues on a day-to-day basis," said Young, a longtime basketball coach. "I think it's important that people understand the groundswell of nonsupport is from the people who deal with (the issue) every day."
After nearly two hours of discussion, the association's board of trustees directed Cuff and his staff to send a survey to the state's high schools and districts asking them if they support the rule as drafted. They also asked for a second vote about whether they support the state board's authority to draft a new transfer rule.
Some trustees said they didn't need to poll their constituents because this issue has been hotly debated in communities across the state.
Kody Hughes, region 18's representative, said taking a stand on this issue is what those who elected him expect him to do - a sentiment strongly supported by Bill Boyle, representing region 19 and Jeff Schena, representing region 13.
Hughes said he respects the work done by the special committee, but the ends didn't justify the means.
"This whole process has been bad," Hughes said. "Yes, some good has come out of it, but that's not the point."
Schena and Boyle supported voting on the issue without the survey, but they eventually settled for a motion supporting the survey and a vote from the trustees on whether or not the state board should be involved in governing high school activities.
"It makes an already unfair playing field more unfair," Schena said. "It's just not going to work. It won't for our district. ... We already deal with an unfair playing field, and this makes it worse. So it's a no from region 13, no matter what we talk about for the next three hours."
The trustees voted to send out the survey to the 140 schools and unanimously voted to voice their opposition to the State School Board's efforts to write policies governing high school athletics.
The survey's results are expected to be reported to the same board of trustees on Tuesday when they discuss a separate issue.
Cuff said there will likely be more action on the issue from the trustees before the State School Board votes on the proposed rule changes on Dec. 9.
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