The High School League has a stranglehold on South Carolina's public schools, keeping kids out late at night on secondary roads and controlling an appeals process that puts entire athletic programs at risk, state Rep. Jim Merrill said.
Merrill, a Daniel Island Republican and former S.C. House majority leader, has decided to take a swing at the issue with a proposed bill that would dissolve the interscholastic organization and shift its responsibilities to the state Department of Education. Such a move would provide more public oversight on the group that serves an influential role in student life and has a budget of about $1.2 million, Merrill said.
The High School League is funded by membership dues from schools, corporate sponsorships and 20 percent of tickets sales to selected playoff games, said league commissioner Jerome Singleton. He said the organization works to break even, not to make a profit.
Supporters of the High School League lined up quickly to stick up for the organization, saying Merrill's got it wrong.
The league is governed by the schools -- including principals and administrators -- that participate. It is an organization that oversees varsity, junior varsity and B teams throughout the state, including 203 high schools, 205 middle schools and more than 338,000 students.
Members ask the High School League to classify schools by enrollment and geographic location every two years. Schools are responsible for scheduling regular-season events, including nonconference opponents and transporting athletes. That combination causes some long nights, even during the school week. That concerns Merrill.
Some accused Merrill of writing the bill to get back at the league for two incidents this year involving Hanahan High School. The Hanahan football team had to forfeit nine games for using ineligible players in the fall. In February, the Hanahan wrestling team's shot at its first state championship came to an abrupt end when Singleton ruled that the Hawks used an ineligible wrestler in Hanahan's 34-33 victory over Loris in the Class AA Lower State final. The league charged the school, which is in Merrill's legislative district, a $3,300 fine.
Lawmakers will consider the legislation when they return to session in January. Richard Luden, athletics director at West Ashley High School in Charleston, said Merrill's off track.
"It sounds like a knee-jerk reaction," he said. "Does he understand that the High School League is governed by us (member schools)? Some people think that it is run by one or two people, but that's not the case at all. There's an executive committee that hears appeals and there's someone from the state Department of Education who is a member of the executive committee."
Merrill said the situation in Hanahan is just one recent example of why the state should have statutory authority of high school athletic competitions.
He said the league's recent realignment separated nearby rival schools, resulting in long bus rides for students after evening competitions. Merrill said he is concerned about the fallout for a Johns Island teen who this year was denied the right to play on the junior varsity football team at his new school after a transfer. League rules generally require a transfer student to sit out for a year.
"I get calls about transfers and denied appeals every single year," Merrill said. "It's hardly a knee-jerk reaction. With our education system, generally, there is a push for some accountability and in this instance, an association controls so much of our high school students' lives and really can impact the school itself."
Ray Stackley, who has served as athletics director at Stratford High School in Goose Creek for 26 years and recently completed a four-year term as a member of the league's executive committee, said the league only enforces the rules.
"It's the schools, the principals, administrators who make the rules, not the High School League," Stackley said.
But whether or not his bill passes, Merrill said it will lead to a vetting of the system and possibly to improvements that all involved can agree on.
Outgoing state Superintendent of Education Jim Rex, a Democrat, said he's concerned that shifting the responsibilities from the league to the Education Department would add more pressure to the agency at a time when millions of dollars have been cut from the budget. Rex said he is also worried the bill would unwisely expand the agency's focus beyond academics to including interscholastic sports ranging from football to cheerleading.
Merrill said he expects to add language to his bill that would put the league's financial resources in the hands of the Education Department for the hiring of staff to manage the new responsibilities.
Education leaders are split as to whether Merrill's bill is a good idea.
Frances Townsend, chairwoman of the Dorchester District 2 school board, said she's been satisfied with the league's ability to resolve problems.
"They actually look out to prevent problems, rather than react when an issue comes up," she said.
Berkeley County School Board Vice Chairman Doug Cooper said he supports Merrill's proposal.
"Berkeley County has had several issues with the High School League and them not interpreting or following their own rules," Cooper said. "I think it needs to be more focused on the kids and what's right for the kids instead of some of the ways it has played out in the past."