State rep proposes legislation that would allow PIAA to crown separate public, private champs

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Friday, February 3, 2023 | 7:15 PM


The PIAA has maintained that splitting public and private schools into separate playoffs is prohibited under a state statute from 1972, but new legislation could rewrite that law.

State Rep. Scott Conklin (D-Centre) announced plans Thursday to introduce legislation that would let the PIAA create separate tournaments for boundary and non-boundary schools, a frequent request from public school administrators who see the current postseason format as unfair. However, Conklin’s legislation wouldn’t mandate any PIAA changes, said his chief of staff, Tor Michaels.

“This legislation unties the hands of the PIAA with that 1972 statute,” Michaels said. “All it does is put (the postseason decisions) in the hands of the PIAA and all of the people who are passionate about sports, to come up with a different system.”

Many public school advocates have argued that so-called non-boundary teams from private, parochial and charter schools have a competitive advantage. Their suggested solution is to crown separate state champions, an option PIAA executive director Bob Lombardi has called a non-starter under the 1972 law, which required the PIAA to accept private schools as members.

PIAA attorneys have said the law prevents separate playoffs. However, if the state legislature removed that legal obstacle, the PIAA could consider that option, Michaels said.

“If they determine the current system is still fairest, still the best, more power to them,” Michaels said. “But for years, all we’ve been hearing is that we can’t do anything because of this 1972 law. Well, things have changed since 1972.”

However, Lombardi said the situation is not that simple, adding that the PIAA disagrees with the common use of the term “boundary school.”

“That definition of boundary and non-boundary is flawed because many (public) schools take tuition kids or teachers bring their children in (from another school district),” Lombardi said. “As soon as you do that, they become non-boundary.”

Conklin’s staff and the PIAA administration have not discussed the proposed legislation.

“When it comes to competition in team sports, especially football and basketball, private, charter and parochial schools have been dominant in state playoffs over the past several years,” Conklin wrote in his memo. “While competition is an important aspect of sports, I am also concerned about the safety and welfare of student-athletes.”

Since non-boundary schools have the ability to field more athletes with “superior size, strength and speed,” playing against boundary schools “creates both an unfair advantage and an unsafe environment,” Conklin wrote.

Lombardi said he has spoken recently with other lawmakers, including state Sen. Scott Martin (R-Lancaster), a member of the state athletic oversight committee. Lombardi said he shared with Martin the PIAA’s concerns about classifying schools as boundary and non-boundary.

“It’s not as simple as defining it loosely like that,” Lombardi said. “There are a lot of moving tentacles there.”

Conklin’s legislative efforts are in the early stages. The state house is still organizing for the current legislative session and hasn’t yet approved committee assignments, Michaels said. Thursday’s memo to lawmakers was seeking co-sponsors for his bill.

State lawmakers have pursued similar legislation in recent years without success, including a bill by Conklin four years ago. But Michaels considered this effort different, in part because the legislation wouldn’t put any mandates on the PIAA.

“I want to underline three times in bold that if the current system is the fairest system that the PIAA can come up with, so be it,” Michaels said. “But let’s have the discussion, and let’s stop hiding behind an archaic 1972 ruling.”

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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