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The next step in what has felt like a painfully slow journey toward settling the public/private school debate in Tennessee high school sports was taken last week and the next one, which comes within the next four months, could finally decide the decades-old issue.

During last week's annual spring meeting the TSSAA Legislative Council called for a special meeting this summer -- in either late June or early July -- where a vote could be made on the proposal to completely split member schools strictly on the basis of public/private.

You may remember the proposal for a total split was made one year ago, and the uncertainty it caused has hovered over prep sports so long that many administrators and coaches on both sides had begun to openly wonder if the state's governing body was ever going to address the hot-button issue.

"This is by far the biggest decision since I took over (in 2009) because it will shape the direction of our future," said TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress. "Whatever is decided, it will determine the future of high school sports for both public schools and independent schools for years to come.

"We need to go ahead and deal with it this calendar year because if there's a major change we need as much time as possible to plan for it before the next school year begins and since our next reclassification is less than two years away. Our member schools deserve to know how to prepare."

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If the council uses input from member schools as a guide, expect a complete split to be voted in because the vast majority have wanted that to happen for years.

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 but 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.

"They put a Band-aid on a bullet hole," is how one local principal summed it up. "They just delayed the inevitable. The great majority of public schools, and even some private schools, want the split."

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.

The Times Free Press conducted a poll of 41 administrators from area schools last summer and found that 33 of those favored a complete public-private split.

Although Soddy-Daisy principal Danny Gilbert, who represents Chattanooga on the Legislative Council, is aware of the fact that 80 percent of his area schools want the split, he added that even that drastic move likely won't end the debate.

"This is a subject that divides a lot of competitive people, and even if there is a complete split I don't think the public-private argument will ever be settled in our state," Gilbert said. "I'm going to discuss it with coaches and administrators from all our area schools and make sure they know what a complete split would mean for everyone. And then I'll vote however the majority instructs me to.

"The key is for all our council members to vote how the majority of schools they represent want and not just however is best for their school. It's a tough process and it's going to affect every high school athlete and every sport for a long time no matter what we decide."

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293.

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