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Can Public and Private Schools Coexist in High School Athletics?

By Dr. David Hoch on November 10, 2015 hst Print

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Bill Gillispie, CMAA, director of athletics at Charleston (West Virginia) Catholic High School, and Sean Dowling, CMAA, director of athletics at Madison (New Jersey) High School, regarding the issues that exist between public high schools and private high schools.

While a debate may ensue as to what degree, there is a real perception that private schools recruit players and this often causes a rift between the two entities. What can be done to create more trust and a better working relationship between these two groups of schools?

Gillispie: Communication is the key and this can be facilitated by joining your state’s athletic directors’ association. Getting to know each other is a big part of getting along. Some of my best professional friends are public school administrators due to the fact we are able to talk about issues that arise.

Dowling: There is a distinct difference from North to South Jersey. In South Jersey, athletic administrators will tell you that both groups are coexisting nicely. On the other end, there is a definite rift between public and private schools in North Jersey. Recognizing this problem, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association formed a Public-Non Public Committee made up of athletic administrators in order to start an open dialogue on all issues affecting these two groups. Ironically, the transfer issue was identified as an important area to address.

Even if there is no actual recruitment of athletes, private schools do not have the same geographic boundaries that public schools have. In some communities and areas of a state, therefore, there is real competition for students and athletes. This undoubtedly strains relationships. How do you coexist under these conditions?

Gillispie: In West Virginia, the boundaries were changed by our state association in the 2012-13 school year. “Non-public member schools shall be identical with the attendance zone of the public school in which the non-public member is located.” This has really helped by taking away the idea that private schools get students from anywhere.

Dowling: Athletic administrators and coaches ultimately want a fair and competitive contest. The Northwest Jersey Athletic Conference uses a multiplier for non-public schools when forming divisions based on enrollment. This places the larger private schools in the division with the larger public schools. In theory, this creates a more level playing field. Another important issue is sportsmanship. Respecting one’s opponent and not running up a score on any level lends itself for better relations with each other.

In many state associations that include both public and private schools, it is fairly common that private schools rack up the majority of state titles. Private schools may have to participate at a higher classification for playoff purposes, but what else can be done to “level the playing field”?

Gillispie: In West Virginia, all nine private schools compete in the smallest classification and public schools won 14 of the 19 state titles in the 2014-15 school year. The new resident-transfer rule along with a better understanding of each side has helped our situation.

Dowling: When it comes to state tournament time in New Jersey, public and non-public schools are separated, with a few exceptions, for sectional and state championships. For a few specific sports, we play down to one single state champion, such as with boys lacrosse. In one conference, which forms its divisions by strength of program in each respective sport, a non-public school has amassed 54 divisional titles across all sports. Even with the strength of program qualifier, the closest public school has five.

If athletic recruiting does openly occur, should there be acceptable standards or approaches that are used? For example, not going after an athlete who is already enrolled and participating at a public high school, or that middle school students are fair game? What do you think?

Gillispie: There should never be acceptable standards for recruiting, public or private. Where I see recruiting the most is with the non-education based athletics realm such as Amateur Athletic Union and community travel teams, when teammates on those teams want to stay together. This then puts stress and creates hard feeling between schools.

Dowling: As detailed in the NJSIAA Constitution, the recruiting of an athlete is not allowed. However, it has been almost impossible to enforce and, as a result, schools are getting more brazen with their recruiting. The perception is, “OK, prove it.” It is important to understand that private schools are essentially a business. They need students to stay open, and strong athletic programs often play an important part in this process.

Are the problems so ingrained that states should have a public school association and private schools should have their own separate association? If a public school wants to play a private school as a non-league game, this would be their choice, but they would not meet in the state playoffs.

Gillispie: I feel each state association has to look at its situation differently. How many private schools does the state have? What is the enrollment of those schools, and are those schools willing to abide by the state associations rules and regulations?

Dowling: I have always felt this way. If non-public schools want or need to go out and recruit, then they should leave the state association. We have a few schools that have done that and I respect their decision. If they can’t, or do not want to play by the rules, go on your own but you cannot compete for any NJSIAA state titles.

Considering the mistrust and perceived problems over the years, what does the future hold? Is there any hope for a workable relationship and a situation in which both groups can coexist?

Gillispie: To keep education-based athletics at the forefront, I believe both sides are going to have to work together. We need to realize we are in this together, we’re members of the same association and are regulated by the same rules.

Dowling: If contests are always competitive, I believe it is possible for both groups to exist together in a conference. The reality is that when a non-public school starts to recruit athletes and becomes a “powerhouse,” a level playing field no longer exists. Also, when public schools lose to private schools with student-athletes from that very community, it can get very emotional and hard feelings develop.

A few years back, a vote to separate public and non-public schools for athletics in New Jersey went down by only seven votes. However, where does one draw the line? Are we now going to include schools of choice, vocational schools, public schools that accept tuition students and charter schools in the non-public classification?

Unfortunately, the landscape has changed. Recruiting takes all types of forms – coaches to athletes, parent to parent, student to student. Parents have every right to send their children to the school of their choice. When they are enticed with scholarship, promise of playing time or guarantee a college scholarship, it violates our NJSIAA Constitution. If the public and non-public schools form their own separate associations, at least they will not have to play one another.