(Full disclosure regarding the ensuing article: I am the webmaster, power rankings tabulator and director of corporate sponsorships for PIAA District 3.  I am paid a monthly stipend as an independent contractor for those services. As such, I am not an employee of PIAA, but I do provides remunerative services for a PIAA entity, if I may use some legislative-speak.)

On Tuesday, the Harrisburg Patriot-News via pennlive.com posted two stories about State Sen. Jake Corman (R-Bellefonte) inserting a provision in the omnibus state education funding bill that will force the PIAA to change a portion of its transfer and eligibility rules if it wants to stay in business. ( The original story by Patriot-News Capitol reporter Jan Murphy is here; the sports follow-up by Patriot-News sports reporter Stefanie Loh is here.)

Both Jan and Stefanie’s stories have the critical details, but the bottom line is this: Corman, whose 34th Senate District encompasses all of Juniata and Perry counties and portions of Centre, Mifflin and Union counties, has legislatively directed PIAA to waive or alter its current policy regulating transfers in House Bill 1352. The stated issue is students whose schools have eliminated interscholastic athletics should be permitted to transfer to another member school at no penalty should those students desire athletic participation.

And just to make sure the PIAA does it his way, Corman added into the provision, which can be found here starting at the bottom of page 38, the end of PIAA as we know it if the PIAA Board of Directors does not follow the directive.

There’s just one problem: The PIAA language, which is now state law, is horrible in its implications.

First, there’s the heart of the provision, which states the following: “(PIAA shall) by August 8, 2011, establish a policy requiring that students who in the current or prior school year attended a school entity that has abolished its program of interscholastic athletics in whole or in part (emphasis added) shall be eligible to participate without penalty in the program of interscholastic athletics of another school entity in which they are currently enrolled (emphasis added) …”

There is so much wrong with this, it’s hard to choose a starting point, but let’s go with the phrases in italics.

Corman might have nobility and fairness in mind by directing PIAA to hold harmless any student who transfers because his or her school has eliminated interscholastic athletics for budgetary reasons (the Juniata County School District currently is in that position by failing to fund all extracurricular activities, including athletics, for the 2011-2012 school year).  If so, good for him.

But the language that supposedly addresses that situation is way too broad, ergo, the italicized portion “in whole or in part”. For one thing, it doesn’t link the elimination of these athletic programs to fiscal distress.  That’s a problem because schools can abolish or eliminate sports for a number of reasons.

Even more problematic in the phrase “in part:”  Taken literally, that portion of the provision means that if a school eliminates just one sport, all students at that school are eligible to transfer without penalty in the upcoming school year.   Period.

And law is a literal business.  Knowingly or not, the provision as written has opened the floodgates to mass transfers.  It is unlikely those mass transfers will materialize, but it has given some student-athletes who were considering a transfer a get-out-of-jail free card if his school has cut any sport, not just the sport in which that student participates.

Then there is the final phrase “in which they are currently enrolled”. Does this mean that students must transfer to another school (and all that goes along with transferring) or does it mean that a student can remain in his home district and participate in another school’s program without actually attending the other school?

Look closely at the language. It says that students are “… eligible to participate without penalty in the program of interscholastic athletic of another school entity … “. It doesn’t specifically state that students must physically transfer. And does it mean that the receiving school is required to accept the student as an athlete without the transfer?  Again, it doesn’t say.  It has dumped all of those details into the lap of the PIAA Board of Directors.

Yet, if the BOD, which is certain to have serious issues with the Corman provision, does not craft a policy that meets the provision’s impossibly broad standards, it risks a shutdown of the organization.

That brings us to the next paragraph of the provision which reads: “If the association fails to establish and enforce the policy, no school entity may be a member of the association and it may not pay dues to the association directly or indirectly through an affiliated organization.”

And here I thought the Soviet Union was no more.

What Corman has done is this: In the interest of pleasing some noisy constituents, he has turned nearly 100 years of PIAA jurisprudence on its head with legislative language that is so broad and poorly written it cannot be reasonably applied or enforced, yet it is threatening the organization responsible for crafting an impossible policy with extinction if it does not comply with his directive.

Of course, there is nothing standing behind this provision to provide for the administration and execution of interscholastic sports in Pennsylvania should the PIAA somehow fail to live up to the state’s standards.  If PIAA membership suddenly ceases to exist on, say, Sept. 1, what fills the vacuum?  Corman’s office has no answer other than to suggest that PIAA should comply.

And that’s the point.  As PIAA executive director Brad Cashman said Wednesday, “We’re going to have to comply with something.  We’ll just have to figure out what that something is.  Because if we don’t do what the Senate (amendment) requires, it will rip our membership out from underneath us.”

This provision is far below Corman’s pay grade and his other excellent work, which includes his sound chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations Committee and his necessary leadership on the recently passed Fair Share Act.  That act limits liability of a defendent in a damages suit to its actual level of responsibility up to 60 percent.  Previously, a defendant that had as little as 1 percent of culpability could be sued for 100 percent of the damages, provided their pockets were deep enough.

It’s hard to understand why a fairly conservative Republican like Corman would go all Democratic and drop the heavy statist hammer on PIAA, especially when – as Stefanie Loh pointed out in her interview with East Juniata AD Rod Hart – the school district that precipitated the provision is trying to find ways to provide interscholastic athletics this season.

Indeed, Corman’s provision will be the first time since 1972 that the state legislature has directly altered PIAA policy.  The General Assembly adopted a change in the school code in ’72 that forced the PIAA to open membership to private schools.  Even the Senate investigation of 1998 that eventually led to Act 91 of 2000 that provided state oversight of PIAA and gave the organization some must-do guidelines did not actually demand certain policies and certainly did not micromanage any PIAA issues like Corman’s provision.

The simple fact is that PIAA has a process for dealing with matters like this.  Time was definitely an issue here; fall sports practice is scheduled to start Aug. 15, and schools need to have clarity on this issue.  Corman’s legislative director, Scott Sikorski, told RodFrisco.com that Corman inserted the penalty against PIAA “just for the certainty aspect. What we didn’t want is for the PIAA to meet (in July) and fail to implement the provision.  We will not be in session again until Sept. 3 and our schools needed to have that certainty.”

All while dangling the possibility of having no governing body, or a badly damaged one, at the same time.

The simple fact is that Corman and his office didn’t have to get involved legislatively at all.  While it is Corman’s job to respond to significant constituent concerns – and I suggest that high school sports is one, giant, statewide “constituent concern” – a legislative remedy was the worst of all possible options, and the poorly-worded provision shows us why.

This concern should have been properly conveyed to the Board of Directors, who would have dealt with it soberly and, I believe, properly.  The BOD is of no mind to withhold athletic opportunity from Pennsylvania students.  There is no doubt in my mind that the Board would have found a way to ensure participation for the students of Juniata County (and other affected students across the state).

This matter has now opened the door to virtually any legislative action on any PIAA issue, especially the long-running battle between the state’s public and private schools.  This provision is not just an issue in the micro sense, but the macro sense as well.

So the problem with HB 1352 is pages 38 and 39.  Those paragraphs shouldn’t even exist.

  8 Responses to “The trouble with HB 1352 (updated to reflect the law’s passage)”

  1. the PIAA should not exist to begin with. It is a totally closed private system with veritably unlimited power over a vast amount of public governmental bodies’ athletic programs. the PIAA should be legislated completely out of existence. No government has ever been more statist and Soviet-style than the PIAA, and its Commissar Cashman. Corman’s legislation is completely correct, and does not go far enough. The public schools should be prohibited from playing dues to the PIAA or any successor agency that is not 100% governmental.

  2. and btw, I have served a term on the state republican committee, and am not a liberal. But government’s functions include the need to redress grievances of the citizens, and that is what Jake is doing. God bless him and his efforts.

  3. Mark,

    Thanks not only for writing, but for identifying yourself. I always appreciate and respect that.

    But on the issue of PIAA and state government, we are diametrically opposed.

    To call PIAA closed, statist and Soviet-style is more than just a misreading of the organization, it’s simply wrong and frankly ignorant. PIAA’s is hardly “closed”: All of its meetings, including those at the district level, are open to the public. PIAA follows the state’s Open Meeting Law. Member schools, who join voluntarily and participate in championship contests voluntarily, can submit proposals through their district representatives.

    PIAA is governed not by one man, as you imply, but by a 31-member board that has statewide representation, 17 of whom represent the PIAA’s 12 districts. Other members represent the state’s superintendents, school boards, principals, game officials, parents, private schools, junior highs and yes, state government via the Department of Education. All have the ability to propose changes to the PIAA constitution, by-laws and policies.

    It bids out championship venues and clothing. It advertises and interviews for staff positions.

    And it suffers from a reputation that, sadly, hasn’t changed in 40 years, thanks in part to public misrepresentations made by elected state government officials over the years, especially during the 1998 Senate investigation.

    That Senate investigation, while triggered by some hurt feelings, actually did two positive things: It changed the way PIAA operated in the public sphere (here your opinions have some validity) and it concluded that scholastic sports are much better managed not by state government but by the schools themselves, which is exactly what PIAA is: an organization of member schools.

    Re Corman responding to constituent grievances: The constituents’ grievance in the case of the Juniata County School District is not with PIAA, but with the school district. PIAA did not eliminate the athletic opportunities for those students, the school board did.

    The only role PIAA has in this circumstance is the application of its transfer and eligibility rules, rules that have debated endlessly throughout PIAA’s existence. The proper channel for addressing the loss of opportunity is through the PIAA Board of Directors, not an elected official who arbitrarily decides to threaten the organization’s very existence.

    I like what Corman has done as a state senator; I would vote for him if the 34th District extend just 4 more miles to my home in Cumberland County. But on this matter, he went way over the line by threatening PIAA. Waaaaaaaaaay over the line. Are our elected officials in the business of eliminating private corporations over matters that can easily be handled by an elected board (PIAA BOD members are elected by their peers in most cases)?

    And the legislation itself is laughably bad. It was authored by someone who had no idea what he was doing, as I pointed out in my post. Or, worse, the author DID know what he wanted: an opportunity to club PIAA to death. Does such a horrible piece of legislation support your bottomless faith in state government? It doesn’t encourage me, that’s for sure.

    I have no problem with Corman’s office contacting PIAA with his concerns; that’s a legitimate part of the process. And Brad Cashman was correct by telling Corman’s office that he himself could not guarantee a rule change, but that it had to be debated, authored and voted upon by the Board.

    I do have a problem with Corman or any other elected official slipping in an undebated amendment into a barely related bill that has the potential result of a government takeover of a private organization.

    Long answer, but necessary to counter the sad misconceptions, including yours, that abound about PIAA.

  4. Well Rod, I certainly agree with you that Corman is wrong to dictate to the PIAA, when there is no certainty that Juniata SD or any other public school will end up dropping all sports. After all, he just invited all athletes to leave my School District because they could not find a fifth boy interested in playing tennis, causing a suspension of the sport.

    However, have you ever bothered thinking thru how NewSpeak the Fair Share act is – one of the most unfair acts ever? It sounds good at first. A large rich company and a small not so rich company co-operate on a venture. Both expect to profit. But they both screw up, and a passerby gets hurt, ends up in a wheelchair, and needs a lot of money to have any kind of a satisfactory life. If the court finds they are 50-50 at fault, they should pay the passerby the same amount. Great, but what if it turns out the the small company has no real assets and had no valid insurance. So now the large company, who could have profited greatly had they not screwed up, pays 50%, and the passerby, who could not have profited one penny, pays 50%. By what stretch of the language is that fair?. Per Big Brother – War is peace, hate is love, lies are truth, scarcesness is plenty, and 27 years later, injustice is fair.

    Think of a smaller version of the Gulf Oil Spill. Likely between Halliburton, Transocean, BP, no one will be found 60% at fault. If one or two of the smaller companies were more fly by night than, BP would not be required to pick up the difference, and all the shrimpers and hostelers, etc would never recover. No, Transocean and Halliburton seem to big.

    But think of a big company (A-say Exxon) that owns the mineral rights to mineral X under some rural Pa town, but has no way of getting at it. However a small company (B) says we can get to that mineral for you with a machine built by another small company (C). The folks in the town can’t stop A, B, + C because A has the mineral rights and owns a surface property from which to begin. Well something goes wrong and the town subsides to destuction. The court says A, B, + C are equally at fault, but B + C are bankrupt with no insurance. So all the people of the town, who stood not to profit at all, just lost 2/3 of their assets.

    And no, I was not a plaintiffs attorney, I worked 14+ years for a Commercial Property and Casuality insurer.

    Seems like we are headed back to the 19th and early 20th century. There was no way an injured worker could recover from his employer for working with a faulty machine because of “assumption of risk”, and, oh, by the way, you are fired. Or when a big company’s truck hit your car and you got nothing because the company said the driver was an independent contractor.

  5. Wow! Just read Mark Edward’s comments. Apparantly he would like a government commission to replace the PIAA. Just think if the governor got to appoint the members. There has not been a Governor in Pa who went to a Public School since Shapp, and he went to HS in Cleveland. So back to Ray Sheaffer. And some public schools think the PIAA now defers to much to privates.

  6. Rod,

    It’s a great thing for the state of Pennsylvania that someone like yourself wants what is absolutely best for, not only the players in this state, but the parents of those kids, and the coaches as well. It does sound rather ludicrous that Corman is more or less giving the PIAA an ultimatum so to speak as to how his organization wants this to be. Its obvious that a power play is being brought out here and the real culprit to this entire situation may be someone standing in the background. Maybe a Corman contributor whose kid in currently involved in this situation at one of the schools affected. That part of it simply turns my stomach. From speaking with you in the past, I could tell how you feel that indeed some changes be done with the PIAA. I feel the same. But we both know how important this organization is to all HS athletes and their parents in Pa and we abide by them.

    I am not against what Corman wants done. i just don’t like the way he’s trying to push to get what he wants here. There simply is a better way to handle this situation.

    Rod, great story. This was a sensational read. Keep up the good work.

  7. Hey Armand,

    Good to hear from you. Hope your summer is going well.

    Like you, I don’t want to see kids lose opportunity to compete. Unfortunately, the Juniata County situation might be a harbinger of things to come, and PIAA will have to be uncharacteristically nimble in dealing with some of these budgetary issues at the local level. Being nimble is not a PIAA organizational strength, so in that sense, the one and only good thing about the Corman amendment is that it has lit a fire under the Board.

    But the rest of it is a train wreck. Indeed, because the Corman amendment is so loosely written, it is Exhibit A on why politicians and their staffs should not try to write PIAA policy; it is almost certain to lead to all kinds of unintended consequences. And these threats to shut down the organization would be laughable if (a) they weren’t so obnoxious and infuriating and (b) they didn’t have the force of law. Corman should be embarrassed by making such a threat.

    But the bottom line is the PIAA will take care of this. They have before, in a similar case. In 2006, Duquesne High School closed and those kids were without a school, let alone athletics. the Board quickly adjusted their transfer and eligibility rules to ensure that the Duquesne kids would not run afoul of PIAA rules once they landed at neighboring schools. But they also made sure that a kid from Duquesne didn’t just happen to show up at, say, Upper St. Clair or Butler just because of the odd circumstance.

    That’s the way it’s supposed to work.

    Thanks again for writing

  8. To say that the PIAA evenly addresses transfer issues is a gross understatement. The only way they are even looked at is if the administration of one of the schools objects. So districts like 11 who are very tight almost never challenge. 7 wants no transfers…and in 2, only the power brokers are allowed transfers. Not a surprise up in 2 given their propensity towards corruption as evidenced by all the indictments and convictions recently in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties. I don’t think the answer is govt involvement a la this new law. But the PIAA has to either enforce all transfers or enforce no transfers. I personally think that as long as someone pays their taxes to a school district, their kid should be allowed to participate no matter when they arrived in the district.

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