ROCHELLE -- For more than 90 minutes, nearly 100 football coaches, non-football coaches, principals, superintendents and interested parties were in the same room.
And football was only a small part of the conversation.
A group of mostly Class A schools located mostly in south Georgia took the next step in possibly breaking away from the GHSA after hearing some details about what that process would take and gauging interest.
Concerns that only a handful of schools might be interested didn’t last long when a vote was taken to determine if the group should continue its fight regarding how the GHSA handles the balance between public and private schools.
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“I think the turnout showed that it was more than just a few south Georgia schools upset about the classification issues,” said Wilcox County head football coach Mark Ledford, one of the movement’s founders. “By having (34 schools), however many it was, represented from all areas of the state, also a school from the highest classification, proved that there are issues that need to be dealt with that haven’t been.”
The group met Tuesday morning at the Wilcox Ag Center and clearly decided it was ready to continue toward possibly forming what could be Georgia’s third athletics association.
Many school officials are upset that the GHSA seemingly has done little to address their concerns about increasingly drastic financial and zoning advantages that private schools, particularly in metro Atlanta, have gained.
A proposal to split Class A by service area size, which ostensibly made it public and private schools, for the playoffs earned minimal consideration by GHSA committees.
Appeals to the latest GHSA reclassification must be filed by Friday and will be heard Monday. The reclassification will be finalized Jan. 10.
A sign that the unhappiness is not limited to the smaller south Georgia schools was indicated by the attendance of Tift County superintendent Patrick Atwater as well as longtime Lincoln County head coach Larry Campbell, among others.
The perception of the GHSA’s indifference was only enhanced by the comments by executive director Ralph Swearngin on Tuesday’s meeting or possible secession in Tuesday’s Valdosta Daily Times.
“I rarely, if ever, deal in hypothetical situations,” he said. “When you start dealing with hypotheticals, people start taking them with a degree of certainty. ...
“Anyone, at any given time, can leave the organization if the association is not meeting their needs.”
At the start of Tuesday’s meeting, Wilcox County principal Chad Davis narrowed down the options to the status quo, joining the GISA and splitting off into private and public schools for the playoffs in all sports and activities or creating a new association.
Executive director Jeff Jackson and assistant director Tommy Whittle of the GISA were on hand, since part of the movement has dealt with the possibility of public schools joining the private school association.
“We are not here trying to recruit anybody; we are not trying to pull anybody out of the GHSA,” Whittle said. “Our goal is (what’s best) for the students in the state of Georgia. ... We are not trying to hurt (the) Georgia High School (Association) in any way.”
Whittle said the GISA would aid the group in any way it could, which came to mean mostly an advisory role, perhaps even in a management role of a new association.
Whittle said the GISA has for years tried to get the GHSA to allow for inter-association competition to help cut down on travel costs. That was a primary reason for his attendance Tuesday.
Whether the public schools could join the GISA -- which would require a full membership vote -- was still cloudy. Whittle noted that membership still includes, “some schools y’all are trying to get away from.”
About 60 private schools, mostly in metro Atlanta, hold dual memberships in the GHSA and GISA. FPD is also a part of that group.
Cost of and coverage for catastrophic insurance has been a major issue, and Whittle said the GISA pays the same amount as the GHSA and noted the competition for business in that area.
The discussion went toward forming another association that could be, in so many words, managed by the GISA.
After questions, observations, questions and answers and “what if” scenarios, Davis started polling the schools on hand and heard two answers: “yes” or “pending.”
Representatives needed more details to take back to school boards and school officials before concretely committing to, in some form or fashion, starting a new high school association in Georgia.
The meeting was an indication that departing is a growing possibility for perhaps close to 10 percent of the GHSA membership, and Atwater said he didn’t think the division stopped at Tuesday’s attendees.
“I have a feeling if we reached out about forming an independent association, separate, whatever it’s called, I think you’d see that there’s a lot of AA, AAA, there’d probably be a lot of schools that’d be interested in (doing) this,” he said. “You’re going to get a lot more schools probably than just what’s sitting here.”
He noted that gates in sports other than football have major impacts at different schools, which could lead to more possible departures to retain rivalries.
Campbell cited one example of an administrative disparity that benefits private schools, how one had an enrollment figure that differed by 50 students before and after reclassification, because, he said, the school didn’t count those who hadn’t paid tuition yet.
He spoke several times during Tuesday’s meeting in support of the undertaking and was critical of GHSA leadership as well as those considered “power brokers” on the executive committee.
His main point of contention regarded the state’s GOAL (Greater Opportunities for Access to Learning) program. The law, passed in 2008 under former governor Sonny Perdue, “provides for the creation of student scholarship organizations (“SSOs”) that use Georgia income tax credit-eligible contributions to provide public school or pre-k4, kindergarten or first grade eligible students with the opportunity to attend private schools,” according to its website.
The site further explains how a Georgia taxpayer can direct tax payments to GOAL and designate a school as a recipient.
“A taxpayer redirecting all or a portion of his or her Georgia income tax payments to GOAL and designating a GOAL participating school receives an income tax CREDIT against their Georgia income taxes for the amount of their contribution,” according to the website. “Thus, if a married couple filing a joint return owes $6,000 of Georgia income taxes and makes the maximum contribution to GOAL of $2,500, they will only have to pay $3,500 of income taxes to the state of Georgia.”
The website lists 116 participating schools, including 14 Middle Georgia high schools.
That had Campbell consulting the state constitution and saying he wished he had brought a copy.
“Georgia taxpayers are required to pay for every child in this state a public education,” he said, paraphrasing. “(Nowhere) in the constitution does it say that the Georgia taxpayer (can) pay for a private (school education) to be paid for.
“I think that’s the program that’s killed us all.”
The meeting veered off-track to offer assorted examples of financial disparities and recruiting/school zone issues that had little to do with the group’s desire to grow more organized and progress.
After about 50 minutes of questions and observations, Davis called for a vote of the 34 Class A schools on hand to see if the movement should continue. Most representatives gave a voice vote of “yes” with others saying “pending,” although it was understood that everything was pending discussions and approvals from school boards. But there wasn’t a “no” heard from any school.
Turner County superintendent Ray Jordan noted that the group had some legislative support, and another coach suggested contacting major GHSA sponsors, as well.
An organizational committee was formed and met afterward to get started on by-laws and other such administrative issues. Another meeting is schedule next week in Macon to finalize details and present them to the interested schools in the first week of January.
For all of the back-and-forth, Ledford edited the whole thing down to a simple view.
“I think a majority of all the people here (Tuesday) and not just here, but the other classifications, as well, feel like there’s two different Georgias,” he said. “It’s Atlanta metro, and then there’s the rest of Georgia. I don’t think that’s just in athletics.”