‘Nobody has a perfect system:’ PIAA, critics remain at odds over public-private school debate

Saturday, April 1, 2023 | 11:42 AM

The Philadelphia Catholic League opponent Deer Lakes faced in the state basketball finals played tremendous defense, but that shouldn’t surprise anyone, the Lancers’ coach said.

“I could put together one hell of a defensive team right now if I could make some phone calls for next year,” coach Albie Fletcher said in Hershey after a 28-point loss to Philadelphia’s West Catholic. “The dudes in Deer Lakes back home, those are my guys. That’s our community. That’s our team. But I’m proud of that.”

His not-so-subtle opinion was that private schools have an unfair advantage in building their rosters.

Only three traditional public schools won state basketball titles last weekend, and nine others went to private, charter and parochial schools. Those so-called nonboundary schools also won 10 of 12 state basketball titles last winter.

That has public schools again asking: Does the PIAA have a private school problem?

“Let me answer it this way: What’s your solution?” said PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi, sitting courtside at Giant Center. “You can’t separate them because of the law. … The Department of Ed lawyers have looked at (Act 219 of 1972) and said separation violates the legislation.

“So give me the answer.”

Lombardi doesn’t necessarily agree with the premise pushed by public school advocates who say private schools have an unfair advantage. But regardless, this public-private debate isn’t unique to Pennsylvania, he said. Other states have had the same debate without finding a good alternative.

“We’ve talked with all of those folks extensively,” said Lombardi, who attends conferences with staff from other state associations. “I see many of them twice a year, and they all throw up their hands.”

In one example, Missouri’s state association initially tried an enrollment “multiplier” that counted each nonpublic school student as 1.35 students, but that was abandoned a few years ago. The Missouri State High School Activities Association now uses a competitive-balance formula similar to the PIAA’s but only for nonpublic schools.

Two states that don’t have a public-private debate are Maryland and New York. They have state associations exclusively for public schools: the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association and the New York Public High School Athletic Association.

Pennsylvania was once like them, said Lombardi, offering a brief history lesson from 50 years ago.

Originally, only public schools competed in the PIAA playoffs, but that changed in 1972 when state Rep. Samuel Frank of Allentown introduced legislation that forced the PIAA to accept private schools as full members.

“When Rep. Frank wrote that legislation and put it up for a vote, it passed the house unanimously,” Lombardi said. “That was shocking to me when I went back and looked.”

The vote passed 46-0 in the Senate and 190-0 in the House.

Frank’s concern then was that Allentown Central Catholic’s basketball teams played against public schools in the regular season but couldn’t compete in the state tournament. Once that barrier was removed the Allentown Central Catholic girls won a PIAA basketball title in 1973.

Unless politicians rewrite that state law, the PIAA steadfastly has said it will not consider holding separate public and private school tournaments.

“If the average person knew all of the background and history, they would understand our position,” Lombardi said. “I think all of us at PIAA get painted with an unfair brush. … If the legislature would like to separate them, we will adhere to the law.”

State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) announced plans in February to reintroduce such legislation, but Lombardi said the PIAA wasn’t aware of any legislative action since.

Private, charter and parochial schools have won 27 of 36 PIAA basketball titles in the past three seasons. However, Lombardi said if you look closer, he believes that disparity is a result of the talent level in Philadelphia, not a public-private issue.

Philadelphia schools have won 15 of the past 36 PIAA titles and 57 overall since joining the PIAA in 2003.

“Philadelphia basketball historically goes back to the ’20s,” Lombardi said. “Think about the guys who’ve come out of there. Tom Gola. Tom Meschery. Wilt (Chamberlain). Obviously Kobe (Bryant). Just think about the legends.”

Philadelphia and its four surrounding counties account for almost one-third of the state’s population. Nowadays, many of the top basketball players leave the public school system for charter or Catholic schools, boosting some perennial PIAA contenders.

“If you look at the private school winners we had before Philadelphia came in, it was maybe 17%,” Lombardi said. “That’s just about what our private school membership is.”

The Union girls in Class A were one of the three traditional public schools to win a state title this season. The Dunmore girls won 3A, and the Reading boys won 6A.

Also winning boys titles were Imhotep Charter, Lincoln Park, West Catholic, Lancaster Mennonite and Imani Christian. The girls titles went to Archbishop Carroll, Archbishop Wood, Lansdale Catholic and Kennedy Catholic.

Public school coaches in recent years have spoken out more frequently after state championship losses. Fletcher tried to take a measured approach after Deer Lakes’ loss but still made his dissatisfaction clear.

“I coach AAU basketball,” he said. “This is PIAA interscholastic sports. I coach AAU. I know that dynamic, but I know what this is. It’s that simple.”

Berlin Brothersvalley coach Tanner Prosser felt similarly after losing to Imani Christian but said any criticism he shared then probably wouldn’t make a difference.

“I figure if (New Castle coach) Ralph Blundo and (Quaker Valley’s) Mike Mastroianni say that it’s not fair, and Bob Lombardi tells them that it’s sour grapes, he sure doesn’t want to hear anything I have to say,” Prosser said.

Blundo and Mastroianni spoke out after losses last year. Lombardi said he finds such criticism at the state finals to be ill-timed.

“I hate it when coaches spout off,” Lombardi said. “Regardless of the outcome, give your opponent credit. One of the greatest lessons we learn in athletics — besides teamwork and dedication and discipline — is how to be a good sport.

“If they would give the recognition to the opponent … I’ll listen to them all day long. But I’m not going to listen to what I think is complaining.”

The Blackhawk girls reached the state finals by defeating North Catholic, the best private school in the west, before losing to Lansdale Catholic, the best private school team from the east. The Cougars coach said it’s just part of the challenge.

“You’ll never hear me complain about public vs. private,” Blackhawk coach Steve Lodovico said. “They’re high school kids just like we are. They’re a talented team. I feel we’re a talented team. In 2014 and ’15, when we won these games, we had to beat every private school to get here. You just have to be better than they are. That’s the bottom line.

“We know they’re out there. That’s not going to change.”

The PIAA has strengthened some transfer rules in recent years, making most transfers after the start of 10th grade ineligible for one postseason.

It also added a competitive-balance rule to target football and basketball teams that have postseason success and add a certain number of transfers. The rule forces teams into a higher enrollment classification. The PIAA board now is working to expand the rule to baseball and softball.

“I thought our best answer (to public vs. private) was our competition formula,” Lombardi said, “and I think it’s working somewhat. Is it perfect? No. But nobody has a perfect system.”

Chris Harlan is a TribLive reporter covering sports. He joined the Trib in 2009 after seven years as a reporter at the Beaver County Times. He can be reached at charlan@triblive.com.

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