Region 2-AA marred by reclassification controversy

Credit: Chip Saye

Credit: Chip Saye

It’s no secret that private schools have dominated most sports in Class AA for years. That’s why a new GHSA rule designed to level the playing field starting in 2016-17 cleared AA of all private schools.

Well, except two: Benedictine and St. Vincent’s, both of which remain in Region 2-AA.

And that has public schools in Region 2-AA scratching their heads and wondering why the two private schools from Savannah seemed to get special treatment from the GHSA. According to enrollment figures, Benedictine and St. Vincent’s get more than 3 percent of their students from outside of the county they serve and should have been part of the new 3-percent out-of-county rule, which pushes certain schools into higher sports classifications.

GHSA officials say that, because both are single-gender schools, the way in which their numbers are calculated exempt them from the 3-percent rule. This angered the public schools in the region, and officials from those schools believe the ruling left their programs at a competitive disadvantage.

Representatives from Region 2-AA and the GHSA have brought lawyers into the fray. Jeff Davis County Schools superintendent Dr. Rob Brown is leading the charge for the region. He has been involved since the beginning of this controversial reclassification timeline.

On Nov. 12, the GHSA reclassification committee – a subcommittee of the GHSA’s executive committee – notified all member schools about the proposed 3-percent rule, which states that if 3 percent or more of a school’s student population resides outside of the school’s county, that school is required to move up a classification. Schools with out-of-county students at or exceeding 3 percent had the right to appeal to the reclassification committee for a waiver of the rule.

That appeals process took place on Nov. 18, and a number of schools above the 3-percent threshold appealed, including Jeff Davis, Swainsboro and Vidalia of Region 2. Those three schools won their appeal, which allowed them to remain in 2-AA.

But Brown pointed out that Benedictine and St. Vincent’s weren’t required to make an appeal before the reclassification committee, despite both of those schools’ out-of-county student populations exceeding the 3-percent threshold. Of Benedictine’s 369 students, 18 resided outside of county, which brings the school’s out-of-county percentage to 4.9. Of St. Vincent’s 341 students, 20 resided outside of county, a percentage of 5.8.

“We drove three hours to go to the appeal (in Thomaston, where the GHSA reclassification committee meeting was held) and had to answer questions in front of a panel,” Brown said. “The Savannah schools didn’t have to present an appeal, but the next day we see that Benedictine and St. Vincent’s were listed as ‘won appeal’.”

Benedictine is an all boys school, St. Vincent’s an all girls school. For reclassification purposes, single gender schools have always been required to multiply their student full-time enrollment (FTE) numbers by two. When Benedictine’s FTE number of 369 is doubled, it becomes 738; St. Vincent’s rises from 341 to 682.

The reclassification committee determined that there was no need for St. Vincent’s and Benedictine to go through the appeals process since their percentages – when applying a single gender school's true out-of-county numbers to their doubled FTE numbers – were less than 3 percent. As a result, Benedictine didn’t make the trip to Thomaston since it didn’t have to appeal. St. Vincent’s representatives made the trip to present their appeal, but were excused from the appeals process.

Brown disagrees with the reclassification committee’s decision to exclude the two schools from the appeals process.

“The calculation of 3 percent being applied to the actual, pre-doubled enrollment is the only way to get an apples-to-apples calculation,” Brown said.

At the GHSA executive committee meeting on Jan. 13, the reclassification committee proposed that, for the purposes of the 3-percent rule, single gender schools will have their number based on the actual percentage of students enrolled in that school from outside the county (before their enrollment is doubled for reclassification placement). Under this circumstance, Benedictine’s and St. Vincent’s’ out-of-county percentages would return to their true numbers of 4.9 and 5.8 percent, respectively, meaning both schools would move up a classification.

But because this amendment to the 3-percent rule was decided on at the executive committee meeting in January, and after the reclassification committee’s appeals process in November, the amended 3-percent rule couldn’t go into effect immediately since Benedictine and St. Vincent’s were waived from the appeals process. The rule will instead go into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

“We were told they didn’t have the opportunity to appeal, but they had the same opportunity we did (before the reclassification committee excluded them),” Brown said. “It doesn’t appear the GHSA acted fair in regards to this matter.”

So why didn’t the 3-percent rule apply to a single-gender school’s true out-of-county numbers to begin with?

“To the best of my recollection, I don’t remember a discussion about single-gender schools coming up,” reclassification committee member David Hunter said. “I think it was an after-the-fact thought.”

The reclassification committee’s chairman is Earl Etheridge, a long-time GHSA executive committee member who lives in Savannah, where he also serves as the city’s Parks and Recreations Services’ athletic administrator. Etheridge discounted the notion that he used the chairman position to take care of the Savannah private schools.

“That’s the most ludicrous thing I’ve heard in a long time,” Etheridge said.

According to the minutes log for the GHSA’s executive committee meeting on Jan. 13, it was actually Etheridge who motioned for the 3-percent rule to be reworded so that a single gender school’s numbers are based on actual percentage of students enrolled in that school from outside of the county, before their enrollment is doubled for reclassification placement. Etheridge’s motion was passed unanimously by the executive committee and will go into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

“They got their way,” said Etheridge, referring to the Region 2 public schools. “(The 3-percent rule) could have easily stayed like it was.”

But 2-AA superintendents were still not satisfied with how the 3-percent rule was applied to Benedictine and St. Vincent’s, and felt strongly that those schools’ cases should have gone through the appeals process, rather than the GHSA reclassification committee determining on its own that single-gender schools could double their out-of-county student numbers in addition to their FTE numbers.

On Jan. 27, attorney Paul K. Cook of Bryant & Cook, P.C. submitted a letter to the GHSA on behalf of the superintendents for 2-AA’s public schools, requesting that attention be brought to the matter.

Cook’s letter – provided to the AJC by Brown – highlights the superintendents’ grievances, including 1) how the 3-percent rule was enforced on Benedictine and St. Vincent’s, 2) that Benedictine didn’t have to present an appeal, and 3) that when the full executive committee decided single-gender schools could not double their out-of-county enrollment numbers, that rule should have been enforced immediately instead of going into effect for the 2018-19 school year.

Cook’s letter sums up the superintendents’ grievances with this closing paragraph:

"The school systems involved have communicated and are in total agreement that this situation was not handled with the transparency it deserves. Member schools will continue to meet and determine if any further actions are warranted. It is our hope that this correspondence be given the attention it deserves, and that a response from GHSA on the matter will be forth coming in a timely matter."

A week later on Feb. 4, attorney Alan Connell, who represents the GHSA, responded to Cook’s letter. In Connell’s letter to Cook – which was also provided to the AJC by Brown – he acknowledges there’s a “perceived unfairness that exists when schools with a large number of transfers from outside the county compete against schools which draw their students primarily from inside the county in which those schools are located.”

Connell concludes that the GHSA maintains its stance that Benedictine and St. Vincent’s will be members of Region 2-AA beginning next year.

From Connell’s response:

"The GHSA understands that its decisions are always subject to criticism and that every decision it makes seems to satisfy some member schools while upsetting others. The reclassification process is a monumental undertaking, the effects of which upon its member schools are not taken lightly by the GHSA. However, the GHSA strives to balance the interests of its member schools and granting the waiver to Benedictine and St. Vincent's for this reclassification cycle seemed like the right thing to do."

Brown said he and the other superintendents for 2-AA’s public schools aren’t sure what, if any, steps they’ll take after receiving Connell’s response. He listed 2-AA public schools boycotting the two Savannah private schools, or not entering into contracts with those schools – which is required by the GHSA for football and basketball – were options they could potentially explore, but he also said no such discussions have taken place.

“The bottom line is we want a fair competitive ground for our kids,” Brown said. “(The private Savannah schools) can pick and choose who attends their school, and they’re located in an area that has double the population of all the other schools in Region 2 combined. That’s not a level playing field.”

GHSA executive director Gary Phillips believes the reclassification process was handled properly.

“There’s some reality to the fact that everyone doesn’t get what they want,” Phillips said. “The bottom line is this was a decision made by the full executive committee, and they can make decisions they feel are necessary to operate as an association.

St. Vincent’s athletic director Dawn Odom and Benedictine athletic director Danny Britt said it didn’t matter to them in which classification their schools competed.

“I’m OK with playing wherever you put us,” said Britt, whose football program won the Class AA state championship in 2014. “Just let us go compete. A decision was made. It’s over. Let’s go play. Why there’s a continued argument, I don’t understand.”

Before becoming St. Vincent’s’ athletic director, Odom coached its volleyball team to a Class AAAAAA state title in 2003 with FTE numbers similar to what the school currently has.

“We opted into AAAAAA for travel purposes,” Odom said. “As far as grievances go, I have enough on my plate that I can’t worry about that. I’ve got 13 sports programs to oversee here, so I’m busy enough keeping my own house clean.

“I’ve always said we’ll play wherever we fall, so in two years if we have to play in a higher classification, we’ll play there and I have no doubt we’ll be successful wherever we are.”