CHICKAMAUGA, Ga. — High school athletics and high-level politics are about to collide in Georgia, and if lawmakers have their way, big-time change could be coming to the Georgia High School Association and its members.
Two bills sponsored by northwest Georgia senators, both waiting house approval, would force the GHSA to release financial reports annually, change the way membership within the association's various committees and boards is handled and give the Georgia General Assembly oversight over an organization funded by taxpayers.
"My interest is that their revenue stream is subsidized by taxpaper dollars, and because of that I think the public has the right to know where that money is going," said Charlie Bethel of Dalton, who sponsored the first bill (288). "They don't file tax returns because they're nonprofit. They do provide a cursory financial statement that was basically a cash-flow statement, which is not as complete as what we want.
"We just believe they should be transparent because there are public tax dollars involved."
Bill 343, sponsored by Chickamauga's Jeff Mullis, has the potential to shake the GHSA to its core. The bill, which like Bethel's passed unanimously in the senate, would require that GHSA trustees and executive committee members be employed by a school system or private school and that GHSA members be limited to four-year terms.
Members currently are appointed by schools but in most cases are not employed by school systems. The bill, its supporters believe, would get the GHSA more in touch with the schools' needs.
"There are a lot of members in the GHSA that are retired and not associated with any schools," said Gordon Lee High School administrator Greg Ellis, who has worked closely with Mullis on the bill. "With this bill a member has to be employed by a school at least half a year to make the kinds of decisions these guys are making. Currently there just seems to be a disconnect within the GHSA and its members."
That belief was fostered at Gordon Lee during the recent reclassification process. The GHSA reclassifies its schools every two years based on student enrollment numbers, and Gordon Lee, along with Trion, has been placed in a Class A region with 13 private schools. According to Ellis, Gordon Lee is struggling financially due to poor attendance at football games.
At most schools in the state, football brings in over 70 percent of the athletic revenue, allowing for non-revenue sports to exist without outside funding.
"This is a single-A issue, and with us what we currently have is a worst-case scenario," said Ellis, adding that the Chickamauga school's athletic income was $30,000 less in the 2012-13 school year than the previous year. "We are competing against 13 private schools in our region, and our gates are hardly anything. We've had anywhere from four to 50 people show up when we host the private schools, and we cannot survive on that. We would love to be financially self-sufficient and leave our parents alone [for supplemental revenue]."
Ellis believed a compromise had been reached with the GHSA that would have created a larger Class A by not including the small private schools -- many with enrollments under 150 students -- in configuring its classifications. Those schools would not be left out. Their numbers just would not have gone into the math.
In that agreement, Gordon Lee and Trion would have been placed in a region with public schools Dade County, Model, Armuchee and four Carroll County public schools, while the Atlanta-area private schools would remain together.
"It would be a good region," Trion athletic director and football coach Justin Brown said. "That would be nine region schools, all public, and the longest drive would be to Carroll County, so I supported that. When we play private schools, we take a big financial hit."
The plan, however, was turned down by GHSA executive director Ralph Swearngin, prompting the move toward legislation.
"We had a deal but Ralph said no," Ellis said. "I can't honestly say why, except they don't want people telling them what to do to. Swearngin told me he doesn't see any difference in a city school and a private school. Really? Private schools don't have to worry about gate money; we survive off it."
Ellis said a pure public/private split, like the Tennessee model, wasn't included in the bill -- yet.
"We hope to have some dialogue to come up with a solution, and we want to give the private schools a say in what happens," Ellis said. "It's just a matter if the GHSA will let it happen."
While Class A is clearly the battleground for Bill 343, the rest of the state is paying attention, and many northwest Georgia athletic directors would prefer the government not get involved.
"I would rather leave it in the hands of the GHSA," Calhoun's Hal Lamb said. "My take on it is the GHSA has a tough enough job as it is, and I would think the state government has more things to worry about than the GHSA."
Said Ringgold's Robert Akins: "To me, they do a really good job of taking care of the schools. We've had some things we didn't like, but overall I can say we've been treated fairly at Ringgold. But if the people are having issues, then they have every right to go to their representatives for help. However, I saw at times when I was at Boyd-Buchanan that the government was glad it was separate from the TSSAA."
The house vote on the bills could come as soon as this week, though amendments could be expected before they reach the governor's desk. Ellis hopes the message already has gotten through.
"This is not about wins and losses," Ellis said. "It's about being able to provide quality equipment and facilities and giving the student-athlete a quality experience to remember."
Contact Lindsey Young at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 423-757-6296.
Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...