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Fri. March 8, 2013 | Matt Baker | Email

More proposed legislation takes aim at FHSAA structure, budget

As the Florida High School Athletic Association began studying one bill that could change its policies and politics, a state legislator filed another one that would go even further.

That bill — HB 1279 — would boot the FHSAA’s current board of directors, slash its finances and restrict its investigative powers. It marks the third time the state legislature has targeted Florida’s governing body for high school sports in 14 months.

“What other (nonprofit) does the legislature go in and regulate how the board operates, how the board works, who they select as the CEO and how much they pay them?” FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said in a phone interview this week.

Two proposed bills would do that to the FHSAA, the 92-year-old nonprofit organization that governs about 800 of the state’s public or private high schools.

HB 1279 — filed Monday by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Eustis — would have the biggest impact. Two provisions among its 677 lines would limit the FHSAA’s investigations to 90 days and keep its investigators from searching homes to check whether a family lives where it says it does.

Those changes would have restricted a six-month investigation into Armwood’s football program that ruled five players ineligible for falsifying residency information and resulted in the team being stripped of its 2011 state title.

Metz did not return multiple messages left at his Tallahassee office.

Dearing said the FHSAA would abide by any changes and that schools or districts would have to assume more responsibility of checking residences if the association’s investigators could not.

“It’s difficult to ascertain the valid residence of a kid when it’s called in question,” Dearing said. “But that statute prevents our investigators from doing it.”

Metz’s bill also looks to change the FHSAA’s structure and finances. Instead of being chosen by the FHSAA’s board of directors, the association’s executive director would be appointed by the state’s commissioner of education. The current board members would end their terms on Sept. 30 and not be allowed back.

HB 1279 proposes to chop the association’s income from dues, fees and games in half. The biggest hit would come from the FHSAA’s loss in contest revenue. It earns more than $2.5 million of its $5.2 million budget by collecting a portion of gate receipts from events like playoff games and football classics, according to its 2012-13 budget.

The association has already halved its dues the past two years. Schools pay the FHSAA between $330 and $1,100 annually to be a member. Those dues total only $214,000 — about 4 percent of its budget.

Chief financial officer Linda Robertson said the organization would have to rethink its workshops for coaches or officials if the plan passes because those clinics are funded completely by fees that would shrink. But because the FHSAA has saved for an emergency, it wouldn’t have to make drastic changes for at least five years.

“It would not close the doors of the association,” Robertson said.

Neither would SB 1164, which was introduced into the education committee Tuesday.

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, is an extension of the HB 1403 transfer policy the Lakeland Republican wrote last year.

Dearing said that bill would make two major changes. If a team uses an ineligible player, the FHSAA couldn’t issue forfeits because the punishment would affect innocent players on the team who followed the rules.

“What about all those seven or eight or nine schools … who were negatively impacted by having this ineligible player play?” Dearing said.

The other change centers on the follow-the-coach rule, which makes players ineligible if they transfer to a school where their club coach also coaches. SB 1164 would prevent the FHSAA from suspending the player, so, Dearing said, it would have to punish the coach. Doing that could cause legal problems because the coach is employed by a school, not the FHSAA.

Both proposals would further prohibit the FHSAA from ruling athletes ineligible by giving all of that responsibility to schools or districts. If the FHSAA disagreed with a ruling, it would have to make a case before a judge at the Division of Administrative Hearings.

Dearing said that’s not too different from the FHSAA’s current policy, where it investigates and delivers its findings to appeals boards who render final decisions.

“That changes it,” Dearing said, “but our responsibility to gather the evidence or produce the facts is the same.”

The bills would change the makeup of the board of directors, which hires the executive director, sets the FHSAA’s policies and oversees its budget.

Of the current 16 members, 12 are elected while the other four are appointed by the governor or commissioner of education. The new plan would call for 13 of the 25 board members to be appointed by legislators, the governor or the commissioner of education.

“They’re elected by their peers …” Dearing said of the current system. “That’s representative government.”
Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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