SALT LAKE CITY — A bill that would change the governing board of the Utah High School Activities Association, create a new panel for adjudicating appeals and imposing government standards for open meetings and records passed the House Education committee despite objections from the UHSAA.
The sponsor of HB 413, Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, and collaborator Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, told the committee that the bill is the result of nearly a month of twice a week meetings that included UHSAA officials, coaches, state school board members, superintendents and lawmakers.
“This bill is only about transparency and accountability,” said Speaker Greg Hughes, who participated in a work group that created the compromise legislation. “All this does is create certainty for the public.”
UHSAA officials, on the other hand, said they see it as “overreach” and an attempt by the Legislature to take over management of the association, which is a private, non-profit formed by the 149 member schools to manage prep sports and some activities.
“Our governance and oversight currently takes place at the grassroots level,” said Kristen Betts, a member of the Nebo School District and chairman of the UHSAA’s Board of Trustees. “We feel that UHSAA governance should remain at the most local level. Therefore the position of the UHSAA board of directors is to oppose legislation that changes this governance structure.”
Gibson questioned how the bill changed the way the UHSAA was governed at all. Instead, he said, it asks the organization that does the public’s business abide by open meetings and records laws, creates an independent hearing panel to ensure hearing panels follow UHSAA rules consistently, and codifies the makeup of the Board of Trustees, which is the group responsible for passing rules and assigning regions and classifications.
“You’re going to hear a lot of testimony that they do not disagree with what’s in the bill,” Gibson said. “Just that they don’t want it in code.”
Rep. Daniel McCay asked Betts and UHSAA executive director for a breakdown in revenue.
Executive director Rob Cuff said 80 percent of the UHSAA’s revenue comes from state tournament gates, while about 15 percent comes from corporate sponsorship (including the Deseret News) and five percent or less comes from fees schools pay for membership in the association.
“You’re almost completely dependent on resources (from) public schools,” McCay said in questioning why the UHSAA would object to the bill. “I just don’t understand that. Without public funding, could your organization even exist?”
Rep. Marie Poulson, who along with Rep. Carol Spackman Moss were the only committee members to vote against the bill, tried to clarify what the objection was to any legislation.
“Your opposition to this bill is just that it’s in statute and that wouldn’t give you flexibility to make changes in the future,” Poulson said.
Spackman Moss asked what precipitated the process.
“What wasn’t working?” she asked.
Gibson said, “There is a lot of ambiguity in the transfer rule” which created confusion and problems for families, but also he said a number of superintendents and others felt the Board of Trustees was too large and not responsive enough to complaints.
Hughes said complaints about the association and confusion about how decisions are made have been a long-standing issue. He said over the years he’s dealt with complaints from Delta, Juan Diego and most recently Summit Academy, a school whose board of directors he sits on, and the response has always been “a brick wall.”
He addressed the concern some have that Summit Academy was the impetus for the legislative action, as it was definitely the impetus for a state board rule that addressed some of these same issues, but also included a new transfer rule.
“There is such wide-spread confusion, you just have some transparency issues,” he said. “There are people who will attach bad motives to this, and I would regret that. We’ve had a great working relationship with this group, and it would be demeaning to those efforts. We’re trying to make sure we’re doing right by these kids, schools and communities.”
Betts said the trustees don’t object to the ideas in the bill and have already adopted some of the proposed changes, including the change in the configuration of the Board of Trustees.
Only two members of the public spoke to the bill — one athletic director who was opposed to the bill and a representative from the Sutherland Institute, who was in favor of passage.
Rep. Justin Fawson, R-North Ogden, said the group couldn’t straddle the line between public and private.
“It seems to me, you want it both ways,” he said. “You want to operate privately with public money. I think you need to choose one way or another.” Gibson actually amended the bill to leave the association a private group, as it currently functions as a private non-profit. Rep. LaVar Christensen, R-Draper, and Rep. Derrin Owens, R-Fountain Green, both praised the UHSAA but supported the legislation.
“If this doesn’t change their daily operation, it could even be a relief to them that they have that backing,” Owens said of the proposed independent appeals panel. “This organization literally changes thousands of lives every year It’s just incalculable the amount of good (UHSAA) does.”
Kim Pickett, a member of the South Sanpete School Board who sits on the Board of Trustees, didn’t attend the meeting but listened to the hearing. He said he doesn’t see the trustees changing their minds about legislation as he said they’ve been consistent as both the school board and legislators proposed different kinds of oversight that they wanted to remain an independent organization.
“All along our concern has been, do we want government dictating what a private group does?” he asked. “As a board member, our thought was, we don’t want legislation, but we’re willing to do some things so hopefully they won’t want legislation.”
That could have led to confusion, he said, but it doesn’t change the fact that for nearly 90 years the association has operated on behalf of public schools with almost unanimous support from schools.
He wondered if a bill can be written that impacts just the UHSAA, and if not, he wondered how it would affect associations like the Utah High School Rodeo Association, Future Farmers of America, National Honor Society and even club sports like lacrosse, that use high school facilities and names but have their own governing boards.
“I just think it’s poor legislation,” he said. “I think there are a lot of things that are going to cause us problems later on.”
Hughes said he believes more accountability will benefit the association.
“I actually think this will protect and enhance that ability,” Hughes said. “The confidence level will grow with the public. It creates structure. This is a partnership, not to be viewed as an affront to the activities association."
The committee ended up passing the bill 11-2 and now heads to the floor of the House.