PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi on public vs. private debate: ‘We have a ‘school’ problem’

Saturday, April 6, 2024 | 8:40 PM

While watching private and charter schools again flourish in the state basketball finals, the PIAA’s top administrator said there is a problem, but it’s not what public school advocates might think.

“We have a ‘school’ problem,” said PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi, insisting that while some individual schools are likely skirting the rules, there isn’t an inherent unfairness to public vs. private matchups.

Still, critics point to the stats.

Traditional public schools won only three of the 12 state titles awarded last month in Hershey. The other nine went to private and charter schools, including a record-tying 10th for the boys of Philadelphia’s Imhotep Charter, all since 2008.

WPIAL teams Imani Christian and Lincoln Park won their second consecutive boys titles, while the Archbishop Wood girls won their fourth in a row. The only public school winners statewide were Aliquippa in Class 2A boys, Blackhawk in 4A girls and Central York in 6A boys.

That extended a trend that stretches back a couple of decades: Only twice since 2000 have public schools won a majority of the PIAA basketball titles awarded in any season.

The Franklin Regional boys, a fifth WPIAL team to reach the state finals, lost to Imhotep.

“Unfortunately, those schools have the ability to field different types of players than your average public school can,” Franklin Regional coach Jesse Reed said. “Yeah, you can luck into a player or two like that, but you’re not getting four or five or six players like that in a class. You’re fighting an uphill battle.”

In the past three years, public schools have won eight of 36 basketball championships, which prompted outspoken critics of the PIAA, including at least one state legislator, to again call for separate playoffs.

Lombardi sees the issue differently.

“I think there are a lot of schools that are on the radar for whether they’re attracting students or not,” Lombardi said. “And it’s not just a public/private/charter school issue — it’s a school issue. And it usually centers around a coach or administration.”

Players gravitate to those programs, he said, regardless of whether it’s a private school or a public school. He said it can happen in any sports but that basketball is especially susceptible to the issue.

“You know as well as I do, the AAU influence is huge in this sport,” he said. “When you have some coaches that are also working with AAU programs, it clouds the scenery a little bit. I’m not going to point fingers, but you hear the same songs I do.”

In the past six years, the PIAA tightened its transfer rules, making most athletes ineligible for the postseason for one year if they switch schools. The PIAA also adopted a competitive-balance rule meant to force successful teams into a higher classification if they added transfers.

The PIAA intends to re-examine its competition formula and possibly make promotions based entirely on postseason success. But beyond those steps, are there others the PIAA can take?

“No, I don’t think so,” Lombardi said. “I think the best thing we’re doing, our competition formula, has worked. Our transfer rule changes have worked. There was a comment in the paper today where the athletic director at Parkland (Andy Stephens) has said he thought the transfer rule has made an impact, and I agree with him.”

Stephens told the Allentown Morning Call that Parkland was able to defeat state quarterfinal opponent Roman Catholic because the Philadelphia team had three players unavailable under PIAA transfer rules.

“They were like our version of what St. Joe’s Prep is in football,” Stephens said. “That’s what we’ve always faced, but the PIAA has this transfer rule now and it has had an impact.”

Not everyone thinks that rule is enough.

State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) for at least the third time has proposed legislation to allow separate public and private school playoffs. Conklin in January introduced House Bill 1983 that says the PIAA “may establish separate playoffs and championships for athletics for boundary schools and nonboundary schools.”

As Franklin Regional’s third-year coach, Reed comes at the issue with unique perspective, since he was a standout private school player himself at Greensburg Central Catholic. As a high school senior, Reed led GCC to the state finals, where the Centurions also lost to Imhotep Charter, 67-34.

Reed said he hasn’t delved into the debate about separate playoffs, but he favors the idea.

“Part of me is going to say ‘yes’ because I am at a public school now,” he said. “I think it would be great if it were strictly public schools playing public schools.”

Franklin Regional lost 59-48 in a Class 5A final that was closer than many of Imhotep Charter’s earlier wins. Imhotep won the 2023 PIAA title by 38 points.

“I have a little bit of hurt in me for my guys,” Reed said. “They worked so hard to get there and give themselves an opportunity to go earn a state championship. And you go up against a juggernaut that’s won 10 state championships in the last however many years. It’s tough.”

The PIAA has steadfastly said that creating separate playoffs is prohibited under state legislation passed more than 50 years ago. The legislation forced the PIAA to accept private schools as full members, and Lombardi has said holding separate state tournaments would violate that mandate.

“In 1972 we had the ‘perfect world’ of public only,” Lombardi said. “That was changed by the legislature. They’re the ones who could change it back. If they want to change it, so be it.”

He stressed that Pennsylvania isn’t the only state dealing with this public vs. private issue.

Even without a legislative change, some public school advocates have pondered separating schools at the district level, such as in the WPIAL. Proponents of that idea point to the eastern side of the state where Philadelphia public schools and the Philadelphia Catholic League compete for separate championships. The winner of each league meets in the PIAA District 12 championship game before the state playoffs.

Lombardi urged caution. District 12 has a unique situation, he said, because Philadelphia public schools entered the PIAA in 2004 and their Catholic counterparts didn’t join until ‘08. As a result, they stayed separated.

“That might cause some turbulence,” Lombardi said of splitting schools now. “I would be very cautious about going down that road.”

Franklin Regional was one of seven public school teams that lost to a private or charter school opponent in this year’s state finals. Lombardi upset many public school coaches two years ago when he labeled their criticism as “sour grapes.”

Reed said that isn’t the case.

“I disagree with how some people’s arguments are like, ‘Well, develop your program better. Work harder in the offseason,’” Reed said. “I can promise you, every high school coach in the WPIAL is working their butt off all summer with their guys. No matter how hard you work or how good your players are, if they’re 6-foot and you’re going against 6-8, there’s a disadvantage.”

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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