State Senate opens up offense against GHSA

mlee@macon.comFebruary 6, 2014 

ATLANTA -- In the tradition of great legislative concern about matters of football, the state Senate has opened an offensive against the Georgia High School Association, the governing body of high school sports.

It’s like a “members only club,” said state Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga.

“I’m concerned about how they conduct business,” he said.

Proposed measures take aim at the makeup of the association’s Executive Committee, as well as the structure of regions, among other things.

The first play is Senate Bill 288, approved Thursday, which would reconstitute the Georgia High School Athletics Overview Committee. It was created in 2006, with a sunset date of 2010.

That 10-member legislative committee had the power to demand GHSA cooperation with its plans, backed up by the state attorney general’s office.

But that committee didn’t actually do much, said Ralph Swearngin, GHSA’s executive director.

“We went to the first couple of meetings. We were very transparent. They didn’t have many questions. Then we met once the second year. Then we never met,” he said.

State Sen. Renee Unterman, R-Buford, wrote the floor amendment that re-creates the committee.

She complained the 58-member GHSA Executive Committee includes just four women, far too few considering legal rights to gender parity in sports, and has too few black members as well.

“I love GHSA, I really do, but I have some concerns, and I have some problems,” said Unterman, who was active in three sports during high school.

She also said tickets to championships, including those for her Buford Wolves football team, are too expensive for middle class families.

Roughly half of GHSA’s $4.5 million in revenues for the year that ended in July came from tournaments and playoffs.

But the fight may really start on Tuesday. That’s when the Senate Education and Youth Committee is set to debate Mullis’ Senate Bill 343.

It sets out several things.

First, GHSA Executive Committee and board of trustee members would be required to be school employees for at least 100 days per year. That would mean no full-time retirees. And the measure demands a term limit of four total years on the board. It gives each member school a single vote for executive director.

As for those kinds of controls over his leadership, Swearngin said, “Every person on the GHSA Executive Committee gets voted on every two years. ... Those schools have the right to chose who represents them.” He also said a lot of GHSA issues are complex and can take a year or two to start to understand, an argument against term limits.

Separate regions?

But the bill also demands separate regions and playoffs for public and private schools where enrollment is 640 or fewer students.

“I have two of the smallest public schools,” said Mullis -- Trion and Gordon Lee -- “and we struggle because we’re at the bottom in terms of population and funding.”

Private schools, Mullis said, may have some advantages to recruit better players.

“I would really like to see eventually the private schools have their own league and their own association,” he said, but quickly added, “I’m not sure how far we’ll press on that.”

Neither bill would affect this year’s regions and schedules, Swearngin believes.

He said the bills basically allow legislators “to control a private organization,” and the moves have little to do “with the finished product on the fields and courts. It has to do mainly with the governance structure.”

Swearngin, who is retiring after the school year, said he will get together with members of his organization to discuss the issues and perhaps negotiate to accommodate some of the changes in the bill.

But the executive director can’t make wholesale changes. Most of the bill’s components would require that the GHSA constitution and by-laws be amended. That would take a vote by the GHSA’s Executive Committee.

And both bills employ a workaround to reach GHSA, which is not a state agency. The bill says no public school can get public money if it joins a tournament run by an association that does not comply with certain rules.

Northside High School Athletics Director Kevin Kinsler said he agreed with some of the points in the bill, but he was against the General Assembly making changes.

“It might kick-start the GHSA to look at some of these issues,” Kinsler said. “I’m apprehensive about the General Assembly getting involved in high school athletics. It sets a dangerous precedent. If someone doesn’t like what’s going on, do they just introduce a bill?”

Both bills would also require the GHSA to publish their annual independent audit, which the association started posting online this year.

The Senate debate also rekindled memories of the late House Speaker Tom Murphy, a man of legendary power, who famously had GHSA classifications changed in 1999. Murphy forced the GHSA to apply a so-called multiplier to private school enrollment numbers, bumping many private schools to a higher classification to compete against larger public schools.

Graybeards at the Capitol claim it was to help the debate team that his daughter directed, an activity also organized by GHSA.

Staff writer Jonathan Heeter contributed to this report.

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