State legislators hoped to give the Utah High School Activities Association more muscle, but UHSAA officials say a proposed bill attempting to have the Utah State School Board absorb the rulemaking and enforcement aspects of the association will essentially destroy the nearly 100-year-old organization.
"I'm a little baffled at your reaction," said Rep. Kory Holdaway, R-Taylorsville. "We're trying to validate the Activities Association by allowing the board to adopt (the association's) rules as part of their responsibility for oversight of schools. How is that dismantling the association?"
UHSAA attorney Mark Van Wagoner said the bill would gut the association.
"You would dismantle the association," he said. "That's what you're doing with this. If you are taking the ability to write, adopt and enforce our rules from the association ... That's what we do. We've had dozens of court challenges over the years and we've never lost a case. There is no reason, no basis to take this responsibility from the association and force it on the state board of education."
Rep. Ben Ferry, R-Corinne, wrote the legislation hoping to address two concerns. First, law makers want to put into statute their desire that public schools accept private, home school and charter school students into their athletic programs and activities. While the UHSAA created rules that now allow this, some school districts have not allowed it.
Secondly, legislators said they received a legal opinion that the rules of the UHSAA may be unenforceable under the current statute that simply says the State School board shall govern the participation of non-resident students in consultation with the UHSAA. Currently the state school board defers those duties to the UHSAA. And while legislators worried that might not be good enough, Van Wagoner assured them that it is.
"Our legislative researchers have said that the UHSAA rules are unenforceable because they're not board rules," Ferry explained.
Van Wagoner disagreed with that assessment.
"I take issue that they have to do this," he said. "We've been enforcing these bylaws administratively and in the judicial system, and I've been doing it for 33 years. The state school board can't enforce the bylaws of a private organization. You're right about that. But extracurricular activities are governed by the association ... That's all the association does."
Ferry intended to amend the bill in Wednesday's meeting but rescinded that motion in favor of talking with state school board officials and legal counsel from the Legislature and the UHSAA in hopes of working out a compromise.
Larry Shumway, deputy superintendent of the State Board of Education, offered what he said staff members saw as potential issues that may arise. Should the bill go forward, he said, the board would issue a formal opinion on the subject.
"One of the challenges is to differentiate between a policy and a rule," he said. Secondly, terminology could be creating some of the problems. The UHSAA governs interscholastic competition not extra curricular activities. There are dozens of activities that occur at a school that the UHSAA doesn't oversee or govern in any way.
Third, the UHSAA isn't the only organization that governs competitions involving high school students. He noted that the Future Farmers of America and Utah High School Rodeo Associations hold state competitions that aren't governed by the State School Board but that involve high school students.
Fourth, if the Legislature makes the UHSAA part of the state school board or its policies and rules subject to the state board's governance, there might be issues with the members of the association that are private schools and not subject to the state school board in any other way.
Van Wagoner also pointed out that making the UHSAA or it's functions part of the state school board's responsibilities would be both costly and may cause unforeseen legal issues down the road.
"You would do what no other state has done and that is to make participation a right," he said. If the association is disbanded, he said, who schedules tournaments, schedules officials and plans other aspects of prep competition.Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, praised the UHSAA for its work in adopting rules that allowed charter school students to participate at their home boundary schools. But he said he agrees with Ferry that there are issues that need to be worked out regarding the enforceability of the UHSAA's bylaws and rules.