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HOUSE BILL 91 — Some local officials support a pending bill that would overhaul North Carolina’s system for supervising high school athetics, calling changes long-overdue. Above is the Tuscola student section at a February nonconference game against Pisgah

There will not be many tears shed in the administrative offices of Haywood County Schools if a legislative proposal to dissolve the North Carolina High School Athletic Association and replace it with a new oversight organization comes to fruition.

Haywood County Schools Superintendent Bill Nolte said he believes a complete overhaul of the state’s system of supervision over high school athletics is long overdue. If the proposal becomes law, it will replace the existing governing body overseeing North Carolina’s prep sports with a new 17-member commission appointed by state elected officials.

“As currently configured, the association serves as lawmaker, judge and jury. The association appoints its own members every year,” Nolte said. “The proposed law has nine members appointed by the governor, four by the House of Representatives and four by the Senate. The current self-appointing process makes the NCHSAA the lawmaker, judge and jury on every issue. The new appointment process is much better.”

The proposed changes stem from an N.C. Senate revision of a bill that originated in the state House as legislation designed to expand services to children on the autism spectrum. Known as House Bill 91, the legislation was totally rewritten in the Senate by lawmakers who say they are concerned with what they see as a lack of accountability in the association’s decision-making process and what they view as questionable fiscal matters.

Foremost among those financial concerns is the NCHSAA’s endowment of more than $40 million, which is funded by annual fees paid by schools along with dollars generated by state playoff games, sponsorship deals and other sources. That endowment, which is twice as high as endowments held by any other state’s high school association, has prompted sponsors of the legislation to assert that North Carolina’s high schools are not getting sufficient return on their investments.

Nolte also addressed the issue of the NCHSAA’s endowment, stating, “I do not know the financial details. But I do know that they should not be sitting there with that much money when our schools are out doing fundraisers to cover basic costs. It is ridiculous.”

While many directors of athletics at high schools across Western North Carolina are not in favor of disbanding the NCHSAA, according to reporting by the Asheville Citizen-Times, officials with Haywood County Schools expressed support for the changes contained in the legislation.

Directors of athletics at Haywood County’s two senior high schools, Tuscola’s Michael Belue and Pisgah’s Heidi Morgan, deferred comment to the administrative offices in general and specifically to Nolte and to Trevor Putnam, associate superintendent with responsibility for oversight of school athletics programs countywide.

Changes overdue

Putnam echoed Nolte’s comments that changes in the oversight process for the state’s high school athletics activities are overdue. “The General Assembly was previously charged with providing oversight of high school athletics. The NCHSAA was the designee for the General Assembly for many years. Reform of that organization is definitely needed in regard to election of board members, due process and grievance procedures,” he said.

“With the current NCHSAA structure and bylaws, it is necessary to provide greater oversight,” Putnam said. “To what degree the NCHSAA exists beyond organizational and bylaw changes should depend on the association’s ability to adopt processes that allow for proper grievance and due process when problems or questions arise.”

Putnam also expressed concern about the large endowment held by the NCHSAA. “Based on the information provided in conjunction with the bill, it would appear that NCHSAA holdings are disproportionate to other state associations,” he said.

Contentious history

It should come as no huge surprise that Haywood County school officials would support changing the oversight process for North Carolina’s high school athletics programs. County school officials and the NCHSAA have been engaged in a contentious battle since 2016 over the reclassification of the state’s high schools that resulted in Tuscola High School being classified as a 3A program although Tuscola’s enrollment was smaller than 13 2A schools at the time, according to past reports in The Mountaineer.

Despite appeals from Haywood County Schools officials including the Haywood County Board of Education, a string of back-and-forth correspondence between Nolte and NCHSAA Commissioner Que Tucker, and the involvement of attorney Pat Smathers (a graduate of Tuscola’s cross-county rival, Pisgah), Tuscola remains a member of the Western Mountain 3A Athletic Conference competing against schools with much larger student enrollments.

Nolte calls the association’s denial of Tuscola’s reclassification as a 2A institution alongside Pisgah High School (with a larger student body at the time of the original reclassification decision) “arbitrary and capricious,” and he points to the situation as an example of a lack of accountability and due process on behalf of the NCHSAA.

Putnam concurred, with the Tuscola classification issue front and center in his mind. “I have not spoken with other districts regarding the proposal, but our board has lobbied for change following a failed attempt for Tuscola reclassification. This challenge revealed many procedural issues and rules that prevent proper due process. We hold this belief whether others share the same experiences or not. We are aware of other failed attempts for reclassification by high schools in nearby counties,” Putnam said.

Nolte said that he has spoken with many officials at other school systems across the state who agree that lack of oversight is the problem.

“The way that the association makes classification assignments is symptomatic of poor organizational leadership. It is arbitrary and capricious, and there is a lack of procedures and no due process for schools to follow if the association is not following its own rules,” he said. “There needs to be appropriate due process procedures overseen by a third-party group to make sure that schools and their students get fair treatment and that decisions are not arbitrary and capricious. The North Carolina High School Athletic Association has none of that.”

That’s why Nolte believes that it makes sense to disband the association and replace it with a new commission with members appointed by elected officials to serve terms of four years.

“I realize that this change, if it takes place, won’t be perfect,” he said. “I have rarely seen a law that is perfect, but I would rather see a commission that answers to the governor, the Senate and the House as opposed to having a board that continues to appoint itself.”

The Mountaineer reached out to Que Tucker, the NCHSAA commissioner, for comment but did not receive a reply prior to deadline. In previous comments made during a press conference July 20, Tucker characterized House Bill 91 as “a full-scale attack on the ability and desire of the NCHSAA member schools to govern their own affairs as relates to high school athletics” and an unnecessary mix of politics and sports.

“We believe that high school athletics in our state should not be a political issue. When you start peeling away or turning the pages of this bill, clearly there are politics involved in how the new commission that they have mention would be established,” she said during that media event. “We want what is best for students in North Carolina, particularly the student-athletes in our program. We believe that many members of the General Assembly are motivated to that end, as well. We have demonstrated our willingness to partner with the General Assembly, and we want to work towards our goal of being the national model for education-based athletics in the country.”

Politics at play?

In previous reporting by other state media outlets, Tucker also said that she believes the fact she is the first female and first African American to serve as commissioner of the NCHSAA may be playing a role in how she has been treated by legislators and the state investigation of the association’s finances.

Back on the local front, state Rep. Mark Pless, a Republican whose legislative district consists of Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties, said he is in the process of checking with school officials in those counties to gauge their reaction to the bill.

“We haven’t really gotten the bill back in the House yet after the Senate took the original bill, gutted it and rewrote it. The bill is still in the process of going through Senate committees,” Pless said. “I can say that right now there is no accountability, and the association is going to pretty much do what it wants to do.”

Pless said he has been contacted by Haywood County school officials, who have stated their support for the legislation. “I also have spoken to folks in Yancey County, and they are going to look into it and get back to me. There is a section in there related to home-schooled students being allowed to participate in high school sports that they are not too fond of,” he said.

Pless said he has not yet heard from anyone with the Madison school system.

“I am in favor of doing what the school system folks recommend we do going forward. My job is to represent Haywood, Madison and Yancey counties and their best interests,” he said. “Now, is this bill the best way to go? I don’t know yet. We’re still waiting it for to get out of the Senate. We’ll take a look at what eventually comes out of the Senate and go from there.”

Efforts to reach the other two members of Haywood County’s legislative delegation — state Rep. Mike Clampitt and Sen. Kevin Corbin — were unsuccessful prior to deadline.

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