Updated: GHSA's Phillips offers to retire amid legislative pressure

Georgia High School Association executive director Gary Phillips has agreed to retire at the end the 2016-17 school year if the GHSA honors his contract through 2018.

The GHSA board of trustees voted 5-3 on Monday to bring that question to the 66-member executive committee next Monday. The trustees hope that Phillips’ retirement will hold off ominous bills in the Georgia legislature.

House Bill 415 and Senate Bill 203, which are identical, propose to replace the GHSA with a new statewide governing body that would operate under the state board of education.

GHSA assistant executive director Jay Russell testified Monday to the House Education Committee.

‘’Mr. Phillips has decided to retire at the end of this school year, so we will be looking for a new executive director,’’ Russell said. “And I don't know if that will influence the vote at all, but I wanted you to have this information."

It didn’t influence the vote, as the house bill is out of committee, but it might prevent it from going further.

Russell went on to say that Phillips would retire ‘’just because he thinks it's the right thing to do."

Rep. John Meadows, R-Calhoun, chairman of the House Rules Committee, and the one who is targeting GHSA with legislation, agreed with Russell’s sentiment.

“Gary Phillips has done what he thought was best for this organization since he got there. … and I guess that he's doing this because he thinks it might be in the best interest of this organization,'' Meadows said. "So don't throw too many rocks at him.”

But Meadows also said he gets more complaints about the GHSA - from schools, referees,  coaches and parents - than about everything else put together, “and basically I’m sick of it.” He added, ''I don't think they know what their job is.''

Russell had other remarks about the GHSA in general.

"Yeah, we have problems,” he acknowledged. “We're not a perfect organization, but we try to do the right thing.”

Russell said that communication isn't always what it needs to be. He answered to the perception, expressed during the hearing, that the association is filthy rich and stingy and secretive about its money.

The GHSA puts its audit on its website, although it is not sent to the state. The GHSA spends about $5 million a year and keeps the same in reserves, which Russell said is where the ‘’perception of the overage’’ comes from.

Phillips declined to discuss Monday's events but did comment on the bills on Friday.

‘’Obviously we don’t see the need in all this,'' Phillips said. "We understand we’re not perfect and understand that there are some controversies within the body itself and rules that are made. ... There’s always going to be some controversy here and there. That’s the way high school athletics unfortunately have evolved.’’

GHSA board member Tommy Stringer of Loganville, who voted to support Phillips, said other board members expressed no real personal dissatisfaction with Phillips but said his removal would ensure the GHSA's existence and independence. Stringer said his own vote rejected that concern.

''I don't think the Georgia Legislature has any business dealing in Georgia High School Association affairs,'' Stringer said.

Those voting to recommend that Phillips resign were board president Glenn White, Model High principal in Rome; Gary Long , Mill Creek High athletics director in Gwinnett County; Don Corr of Cherokee County schools; Jesse Crews of Charlton County High and Benjy Rogers, Bleckley County athletics director in Cochran.

Voting against were Stringer; Jim Finch, Mary Persons High principal in Forsyth; and Joe Lancaster of Jackson County. Vice president Lisa Moore Williams of Mableton and at-large trustee Wes Taylor of Valdosta did not attend.

The 10-member board includes seven representatives from each GHSA classification, a president, a vice-president and an at-large member.

Many of the GHSA’s decisions during Phillips’ tenure have been controversial, which is not unusual for any executive director.

Buford and especially Jefferson were unhappy at the process and appeals procedures that led to those city schools being placed in higher classifications this academic year while most other city schools were unaffected.

Phillips’ decision to enforce the GHSA’s bylaws and keep Wheeler’s boys basketball from participating in a post-season tournament in New York two years ago also caused a public outcry. Phillips changed course and gave special permission once legal action was threatened.

The legislature got involved in the fall of 2015, when the GHSA upheld  the disqualification of a third-place finisher at the 2015 state cross-country meet for ignoring a warning and wearing a head band that contained a Bible verse.  Any message, and not the verse per se, violated national federation rules.

The GHSA then got a black eye during the March 2016 state basketball finals when it was discovered that the baskets at the Macon Coliseum had been positioned incorrectly, about a foot too close to the baseline. Phillips elected to play on and not correct the mistake mid-event, which would’ve caused games to be delayed or postponed.

Phillips is only the fifth GHSA executive director since 1946, but he would be the first to be forced out. Phillips succeeded Ralph Swearngin, who served from 2001 to 2014.

Phillips assumed the directorship on July 1, 2014. His contracted was renewed a year later through 2017-18.

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