MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — After more than an hour of discussion Wednesday morning, the TSSAA's nine-member legislative council voted to table a proposal to completely split all Tennessee private schools into a separate division from public schools.
During the discussion leading up to the vote, TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress used a powerpoint presentation to lay out several frank scenarios that could negatively affect the public schools and asked, "If you do this now, what will you do in two years when the complaint is about how to legislate city schools, special school districts and magnet schools that are winning most of the championships? Which will be the case.
"Are you comfortable making a fundamental change in how the organization is structured after 89 years? What you have to ask yourselves is, is this about participation or is it about winning championships?"
Representatives from both public and private schools then debated their conflicting views for several minutes before the council voted 7-2 to establish a committee to study the proposal, then present it to all member schools and poll them on how they would vote. According to council members, they will then cast their vote based on the desires of the majority of the schools they represent.
"You need to give people a chance to look at all facets," said Soddy-Daisy principal Danny Gilbert, who represents the Chattanooga area on the council. "I feel like I know what the majority of schools I represent want, but I can't assume. I want to ask them so I can make an educated vote.
"We'll start doing the research on all the angles and be prepared for when we do vote."
No timetable was given for when the proposal will be voted on, but most council members agreed it likely would be at least a few months.
"Every school needs to know the ramifications before totally dismantling the divisions in one meeting," Childress said after the meeting. "Now is not the time to make such a fundamental change. I want to make sure 100 percent of our member schools understand how it will affect all 21 sanctioned championship sports for both public and private schools."
This is not the first time such a proposal came before the legislative council. In 2002, a statewide poll of all member schools showed that more than 70 percent favored a complete split. Instead, a compromise of having private schools multiply their enrollment by 1.8 was voted in at that time. But that has proven to be more a stop-gap act rather than a solution.
"They put a Band-aid on a bullet hole," said Ed Foster, a former local principal who was a council member for more than 20 years. "They're just delaying the inevitable. The great majority of public schools, and even some private schools, want the split. I'll be when they poll the member schools it's a lot more than 70 percent in favor now.
"People can say all the doom and gloom comments they want about what might happen, but the fact is this is not going away. It's been a debate for more than 20 years, I know from years of experience."
Foster was one of those responsible for voting in the original Division II split, which stated that schools giving financial aid to athletes must play in a separate division. A total of 21 private schools currently opt not to give financial aid to athletes so they can remain in the public school division.
"I think you'll find when you poll member schools that the great majority want the split," said Trousdale County football coach Kevin Creasy, whose school made the proposal for the split, along with Lewis County. "The multiplier is broken. It doesn't work. How can a rural school with two traffic lights in town compete with a metropolitan private school? We played one school that bragged in an advertisement about drawing from eight different counties. We draw from one.
"The smaller private schools don't get their kids the same as us, but they also don't get them the same as the Ensworths, Brentwood Academys and larger private schools. They may not belong in the same league with the large private schools, but they don't belong in our league, either. At some point, somebody needs to make a stand."
Although this debate has been waged for decades, one new development during Wednesday's meeting was that the term "recruiting" was brought up and discussed openly. Previously, recruiting of athletes had been a hot-button subject, but one the council didn't discuss on the record.
However, that door to discussion was opened when council president Dan Black, principal of Bradford High School, posed the question, "Is this based on recruitment?"
He was answered quickly by Maplewood principal and council member Ron Woodard, who said, "Yes, it is based on recruiting practices by the private schools. I have schools I represent who say that if you go to middle school games you'll see private schools there recruiting their kids.
"They're recruiting kids who are impoverished and couldn't otherwise afford to go to a private school but can because they're athletes. Also, most public school facilities can't compete with the private schools. There are no boundaries and it all creates a lot of angst. From a lot of people I represent, I can tell you, they're angry and they want this split."
Another subject that long has been discussed quietly among private schools and could completely change the landscape of prep sports in the state came just to the surface during Wednesday's discussion. Just before the proposal went to a vote, TSSAA attorney Rick Colbert warned the council, "It would be the first time in the history of the organization that we gave no choice to member schools about where they would be classified. You need to ask yourself, will 20 percent of our membership accept governance from an all-public-school board and council that decided they belong in a separate division without their consent?"
Colbert's comments alluded to a widely rumored belief that should a complete split happen, all private schools might decide to withdraw from the TSSAA and form their own association. Such a move would allow them to write their own recruiting and eligibility rules.
However, the National Federation of State High School Associations recognizes only one sanctioned association per state, which means that if private schools create their own association, their championship events would not be sanctioned by the national association.
"I'm concerned about what will happen to public schools," said Morristown West athletic director and council member Mike Reed. "I would advise studying this more before we vote it in and then say, 'What have we done?'
"The proposal may get voted in eventually, but I would rather we make sure all member schools know what the ramifications will be."
Contact Stephen Hargis at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6293.
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 24 years, having been with the Times Free Press since its inception, and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards, including seven in 2013 and a combined 12 in the last two years. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers ...