The biggest issue facing high school sports in more than a decade is still months from being decided, but if the Chattanooga area is any indication there is a clear consensus on the public-school/private-school debate.
The Times Free Press conducted a poll of 41 administrators from area schools and found that 33 of those favored a complete public-private split. Each of those administrators said they would recommend that to the area's TSSAA Legislative Council member, Soddy-Daisy principal Danny Gilbert.
"I'm actually not that surprised by those results," Gilbert said. "I expect there to be a pretty good majority of schools, in our area and around the state, who want the split. I would've voted for it back when we discussed it at our last meeting, but it would've been irresponsible for me to have voted that way before talking with the schools I represent.
"My job is not to force my opinion on anyone, but to educate the schools I represent and let them tell me what they want. That's what we'll do over these next few months. But do I think there will be a split? Yes."
The decades-old issue was renewed when administrators from Trousdale County and Lewis County high schools submitted a proposal last winter to completely split all schools that charge for tuition into a separate division from the public schools. Last March, just before the start of the boys' state basketball tournament, the nine-member Legislative Council discussed the issue for more than an hour before voting 7-2 to table the proposal.
The proposal is aimed at helping smaller public schools, since private schools compete against public schools only in the four smallest classifications in football and the two smaller classes in all other sports.
Should a complete split be voted into action, it would be the third time the TSSAA has had to enforce a separation of public and private schools. Division II was created in the 1997-98 school year for schools that chose to give need-based financial aid to varsity athletes. Private schools that opted not to give financial aid were allowed to remain in the public-school division. Five years later the next step in the process came when the TSSAA implemented a multiplier for those private schools still playing in the public-school division. Those schools had their enrollment multiplied by 1.8, the highest in the nation, for classification purposes, but even that did not answer the outcry of the majority of the state's public schools.
"The multiplier is broken. It doesn't work," said Trousdale football coach Kevin Creasy. "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."
Twenty-two private schools still compete in Division I, and since 1997, 16 of 51 football championships in Classes 1A, 2A and 3A have been won by private schools, while nine of 34 boys' and four of 34 girls' basketball titles have been won by private schools in Classes A and AA.
The creation of D-II ended many of the complaints from the state's large schools, but that seemingly only moved the issue squarely onto the small schools. In 1997, 52 percent of TSSAA member schools supported a complete split of public-private schools. Five years later that total was up to 70 percent, which led to the multiplier being implemented. And now the Chattanooga area has more than 80 percent support for a complete split.
According to TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress, the next step in the process will be to have members of the Legislative Council and Board of Control meet to discuss the ramifications of a complete split. A special nine-person committee, which will be chosen from 20 candidates representing all areas of the state, will then ask member schools how they wish to vote on the issue. The results that committee gathers will be passed along to council members, who will vote on the issue, likely at their March 2015 meeting.
"There's been preliminary discussion, but we'll get more serious about it this summer," Childress said. "The main thing is we don't want anyone making a knee-jerk decision. The schools on both sides need to understand how it will affect classification and what our postseason tournament format will be for all 21 state championship sports.
"If there's a split, we won't have six classes for public schools anymore. We may only have six total classes for both divisions combined. And we won't take as many teams to a state tournament, either. Plus, we'll have to have representation for D-II schools on the board and council. You don't make this type of significant changes to the way our organization has governed things for 89 years without there being some serious concerns, and I just want all our schools to have all the information before they vote."
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.