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Open enrollment and athletic eligibility

Fri, Jul 14th, 2006
Posted in Commentary

An Associated Press story that ran in quite a few Minnesota dailies last week caught my attention. According to the article, the Minnesota State High School League has reacted to complaints of abuses of the states open enrollment rules by appointing an ad hoc committee of parents, coaches and administrators to study the issue.

MSHSL executive director David Stead said the leagues executive board voted last month to create the committee, which will begin meeting in August and is scheduled to present its recommendations to the MSHSL board by the end of the year.

The committee is expected to recommend restricting students ability to transfer between schools without losing any athletic eligibility. If it does, it would be following Wisconsins lead on the transfer issue.

In April, Wisconsins high school governing body voted 269-76 to enact stricter transfer rules. Starting with the 2007-08 school year any student who has finished his or her sophomore year will have to sit out one calendar year of athletic competition and practice if he or she transfers to another high school, with a few exceptions.

The new MSHSL committee may be considering similar changes. Currently, the first time a Minnesota athlete changes schools there is no loss of eligibility, providing it is done at the start of the school year. But a student can only open enroll to another school district once in his or her high school career and remain eligible for MSHSL athletics.

Whether you agree or disagree with Minnesotas open enrollment policy, which has been on the books since former Gov. Rudy Perpich introduced it in 1987, many coaches, athletic directors and school officials feel the system has been abused. Over 10,000 students in grades 9-12 have opened enrolled to other school districts in just the past three years. And how many of those students actually open enrolled to another school district for educational reasons? The Department of Education does not survey those who open enroll to find out why, but some school administrators feel the majority of the students who do open enroll, do so for other reasons.

According to Ted Blaesing, superintendent of White Bear Lake schools and president of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, a good portion of those transfers are the results of student-athletes acting like free agents. White Bear Lake athletic director Lee Alger stated that some coaches are actually going into the lower-school locker rooms trying to sell their programs. Junior high sporting events are being attended by more than just interested parents. Coaches are looking for young prospects at the seventh, eighth and ninth-grade levels, just as college recruiters and pro scouts attend high school and college games.

You almost have to protect the people within your boundaries to make sure they go to your school, Alger said. I think the committee thats been assigned by the high school league is going to attempt to clean that up.

But would new MSHSL rules dealing with open enrollment also pertain to the parochial and private schools in Minnesota? For years, schools like Rochester Lourdes, Winona Cotter, Faribault BA and Breck have been dominating Class A and AA athletics in the state. I would venture to guess those four schools have collectively won more state championships in the past 10 years than any dozen public schools in those classes combined.

Coaches who routinely battle area parochial schools often cry foul. They claim these schools are playing with a stacked deck. They feel parochial and private schools have an unfair advantage because their student base isnt confined to a small geographic area. Im not putting down these athletic programs, because they are excellent programs managed by very talented and dedicated coaches. But there seems to be a growing sentiment that private schools are able to recruit some very good athletes from outside their immediate areas to make their teams better.

Heres a perfect example. While I was working for Phillips Publishing in Spring Valley, the local high school, Kingsland, had a very good football team. In 2001, they played Breck of Golden Valley to advance to the state semi-finals. When I looked over Brecks roster, I noticed that barely any of their athletes were from Golden Valley or anywhere with a Twin Cities address. In fact, the vast majority didnt even live in Minnesota. They came from all over the United States. Kingsland upset the number-one ranked team in the state that year and went on to win the state championship. The following year, the two teams met again in the state championship game. While walking the sidelines at the Metrodome, I spoke with a metro-area reporter who was also covering the game. He told me that many of the kids playing for Breck attended the private school in hopes of earning a college scholarship. He also told me it costs over $5,000 for tuition, room and board to attend one year at Breck, beginning in kindergarten! By the way, Breck topped the Kingsland Knights in the 2002 championship game.

Lonnie Morkens Mabel-Canton volleyball program is another good example. The Cougars have had one of the top Class A programs in the state for years. But the Cougars must get by Faribault BA in the Section One championship game to get to state. They did it twice and brought back trophies each year. Every year BA beat M-C and advanced to state, theyve made it to the championship match. Ive heard many Cougar fans ask how many of those athletes from BA lived outside the Faribault area?

How are small schools with a limited population base supposed to compete with private schools that can recruit top athletes from all over the state and the nation? A growing number of coaches across the state feel that all private schools should be bumped up one class or have their students figured at 1.5 or even 2-pupil units when arriving at what class they should be competing in. So far, thats just discussion. But I dont think thats too far off the radar screen.

It will be very interesting to see what the MSHSL will decide as far as how open enrollment will be handled. I think they will enact something similar to what the Badger State approved this past spring. That action might keep more kids attending schools in their own districts. But that certainly wont solve the private school issue. Thats another kettle of fish.

Charlie Warner is the editor of the Houston County News in LaCrescent.

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