Lawmaker urges PIAA to separate 'boundary, non-boundary' schools for state playoffs

May 1—HARRISBURG — A central Pennsylvania legislator said the time is now to "level the playing field" and push the commonwealth's governing body for high school athletics to create a separate playoff system for boundary and non-boundary schools.

State Rep. Scott Conklin, D-Centre, chaired a meeting of the House Commerce Committee on Tuesday to discuss his own legislative proposal, House Bill 1983, mandating the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association explore such a separation by way of a public hearing and testimony.

Ultimately, under the bill proposal, the PIAA board would vote on whether to establish separate postseasons for traditional public schools with established geographic boundaries and for private schools, including Catholic and public charter schools, with no geographic bounds.

Conklin's own words, however, are clear — he's demanding separation.

"I know the word recruiting is not the word people want to hear but it's the truth. And by doing so, they're able to buy a championship," Conklin said of powerhouse private schools and charters that excel in postseason athletics.

Robert Lombardi, PIAA's executive director, points to existing law established in 1972 that mandates the inclusion of public and private schools within PIAA-sponsored championships.

"The legislative intent was clear to allow private schools to participate with public schools for PIAA championships," Lombardi said by email. "The law ended segregation between public and private schools and PIAA does not discriminate among students."

However, Conklin argues that a 1974 amendment to the public school code would allow PIAA to make the decision to separate the boundary and non-boundary schools on its own and without legislative action.

A spokesperson for Lombardi said Tuesday that the PIAA didn't receive a formal invitation to the House Commerce hearing.

Since the PIAA expanded to six classes entering the 2016-17 school year, non-boundary schools won 70 of 96 state titles in both boys and girls basketball but just 16 of 48 state football titles. Since the state championship format in football began in 1988, traditional public schools have won 118 of 160 titles.

St. Joseph's Preparatory School in Philadelphia is among the exceptions, however, either winning or competing in 10 of the last 11 football championships in its class, always in the largest class, either 4A or 6A following expansion.

"Our Super Bowl is the district championship because you know who we get to play in the first round of states? St. Joe's Prep," state Rep. Joe Emrick, R-Northampton, the committee's minority chair, said.

Emrick represents a portion of PIAA District 11 in the Lehigh Valley. District 11 champion Nazareth, a public school, lost to St. Joe's Prep, 59-21, in the state quarterfinals last November.

"When you're mercy-ruling every team on the way to the state title game, that's a problem," Emrick said.

Conklin and those like-minded about the issue — like Pennsylvania Football Hall of Fame Coach Jim Cantafio who also testified Tuesday — believe non-boundary schools have too great an advantage compared to traditional public schools and have greater odds to win state titles.

Doug Dyke, athletic director, Bald Eagle Area School District, testified Tuesday that while non-boundary schools field championship-worthy rosters, their public draw is limited, resulting in underwhelming ticket sales and concessions that help benefit student-athletes.

Reached after the hearing, state Rep. Carl Walker Metzgar, R-Somerset, didn't take a position on Conklin's bill but expressed a similar opinion. He criticized the PIAA for not taking steps on its own to balance competitiveness between boundary and non-boundary schools and was also critical of its restricted broadcasting rights that critics say prevent broader access to watch high school sports.

"I simply want a level playing field for the playoff system in Pennsylvania. It's clear that private schools have a distinct advantage when it comes to the current system and I want to ensure every student-athlete has an equal opportunity to succeed," Metzgar said.