So, what the hell just happened at the PIAA Board of Directors meeting in Hershey over the weekend?
Politics happened, that’s what.
And I am at a loss to remember a BOD meeting with more anger, more personal antipathy and, frankly, more crappy arguments than this past weekend’s.
The Board did little to enhance its reputation as a sober, deliberative body and much to encourage the idea that the Board lacks leadership and is as partisan as any group of political operatives.
Neither view is quite correct – I’ve been to many BOD meetings since 1997 – and in that time have come to find the Board to be reasonable and intelligent at both the professional and personal levels. Naturally, a board of 31 directors with a wide range of constituents is going to have disagreements – sometimes sharp disagreements – over any number of issues. That’s just life.
But the ongoing battle over the length of the football season has exposed some raw nerves and at least one very serious flaw in the Board’s process.
First, some necessary disclosure: In very short order, I will be a employee of PIAA, paid through the organization’s headquarters. My work with District 3 will soon shift from independent contractor to employee status. The funding for my position comes wholly from District 3, but because of PIAA’s operational structure, my W-2 next year will say PIAA as my employer.
And I now sit in on all District 3 Committee meetings, which means I’m not exactly a disinterested observer on these matters. I agree 100 percent with the District 3 position on the football calendar. I was firmly behind 16 weeks when the change was first proposed (and barely passed by one vote), but the evidence is in, IMO: It’s one week too long under the current format of four classes. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it despite the 17-10-1 vote that killed the 15-week bill.
Oh, yeah: that 17-10-1 vote. You’ll notice four paragraphs up that I said the BOD has 31 voting members. My math skills trend toward weak, but as best I can tell 17 plus 10 plus 1 does not equal 31. It equals 28, which means three Board members were not present for the vote.
I have not had an opportunity to speak with the three absent members – Eric Wolfgang of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Dr. Emilie Lonardi of the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators (Superintendents) and Junior High / Middle School representative Kirk Scurpa of Sharpsville – so I will not speculate on their absence. All three likely have perfectly legitimate reasons not to be there in person. I have missed meetings myself over the years, some for as simple of a matter as dehydration following a particularly active evening of debate at a local tavern.
But where are the alternate voting representatives? If a board member knows he or she will be absent from a meeting, they should have an alternate in place. But here’s the flaw: No Board constituency is required to have an alternate present.
Let’s go to the book: Article VI, Section 2, sub-section N (say that in your best, deep, slow Brad Cashman cadence) of the PIAA Constitution states that: “In the absence of a member from a meeting of the Board of Directors, one of the alternates may (emphasis added) attend such meeting and exercise at the meeting all powers of the absent member.
It does not say “must”, and I have a huge problem with that. The fact is that if a given constituency wants to skip a big vote, it can, and it can do with no penalty to that seat on the Board. It is that very provision that has caused significant problems with major Board votes over the year, but especially the recent football vote.
Let’s take as given that the football calendar is one of PIAA’s most serious sports-related matters (I certainly think it is), serious to the point that all 31 voting members should be present.
In the case of this weekend’s vote, three votes that were previously “yes” votes were missing. Another previous “yes” vote, the second School Boards vote, went from “yes” to “abstention”, a bizarre and at present unexplained decision.
Another “yes” vote – the male parents’ rep vote – flipped to a “no”. That came from District 3 Committee member Dale Myers, who change in position absolutely floored District 3 chairman Sam Elias and vice-chairman Ron Kennedy.
Two other previous “yes” votes from District 12 went to “no”. That was all it took to kill the measure, but let’s go back to the absentees and the abstention. If all of those votes remain in place as “yes,” the measure passes. That would have provided the necessary 21-vote total needed to enact the by-law change that would have reduced the season from 16 to 15 weeks.
Then there’s the matter of timing.
It remains a mystery why the BOD meeting was adjourned at a relatively early hour (9:20 p.m.) on Thursday night with the football vote and the football steering committee recommendations left unattended. It was widely believed that football, which comes via the Executive Director’s report, would happen on Thursday since the PIAA scheduled three hearings at 9 a.m., 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. on Friday. That schedule gave the Board precious lttle time to discuss the issue and clearly contributed to the rising level of tension in the room.
In addition, Wolfgang, one of the two school board reps, was at Thursday’s meeting; it was Friday’s meeting he was unable to attend, and it’s entirely possible, even probable, he believed the matter would be taken up Thursday while he was in attendance.
The decision to adjourn belongs to the Board president with assent of the Board. In this case, outgoing Board president W. Rodney Stone, the District 1 chairman who will officially retire from both positions in the summer, made the call for adjournment. And it must be said the call was not strongly contested. At best, it was met with a murmur and swiftly approved.
I did not have an opportunity to talk to Rod over the weekend; my football championships schedule was full, and I was working with Any Shay and Eric Epler on the soon-to-be-released all-state football team. So I can’t be critical about the decision without knowing Rod’s reason(s).
But it seemed very odd to close up shop with such an important issue on the table and enough time to address it, especially when the following day was certain to be a cluster (in fairness, the football vote was on the agenda for Friday, not Thursday, but the PIAA has busted the agenda many times over the years). Indeed, part of the reason I had no commentary on my blog on Friday morning following the vote is because I had to file, pack up and dash over to Hersheypark Stadium at top speed to make it in time for kickoff of the Class A championship game.
The vote took place after noon; kickoff for the A game was scheduled for 1.
What happened in between was that the football discussion and eventual vote was compressed. It was anxious. I was tense. It was full of last-second, straw man arguments (District 5′s Virgil Palumbo insisted that the early start provision required districts to mandate that start, something that was never understood to be true during the first two readings).
It was all wholly unnecessary, and while I’m not convinced it was a purely political strategy, I’m utterly convinced that it lead to a very unhealthy atmosphere for debate and the eventual vote. That alone is reason to question the whole process this weekend.
That’s why Elias left the meeting room at Hershey in such angry fashion. It wasn’t just that the vote didn’t go his way – no one ever gets that, although the scope of the defections from earlier yes votes was shocking – it’s that the whole process had a bad odor to it: Lousy arguments, shifting allegiances, voters absences, altered time schedule. It had that kind of Romania-under-Ceausescu feel to it. At least there were no poorly-uniformed guards with those ridiculous helmets and bad Eastern bloc rifles in the room.
The whole scenario infuriated Elias, and it’s my view that Sam’s reaction was one of righteous anger, not petulance. That’s because District 3 had taken the position from the beginning to vote against its own self-interest (the district would have stood to lose significant playoff revenue) to do the right thing for the student-athletes and the schools.
In the end, only Districts 2, 3 and 9 took the altruistic position among the district voters; those three districts stood to lose financially from their positions. Sorry, but the “yes” votes from District 7, 8 and 10 were painless; those districts would have suffered no harm with a reduction in calendar and were voting their self-interest.
For years, PIAA officials have wondered why the organization suffers a negative reputation. Well, the reasons are legion, and I could write a whole series of blogs on the subject. But all they need to do is look at their weekend dysfunction, and they have one of the biggest reasons right there.