The clock is ticking for the NCHSAA and the Haywood County Board of Education.

As the latest salvo in a continually-escalating war that has lasted a few years now, Pat Smathers, who represents the Haywood County School Board and Tuscola High School sent a letter to attorneys for the State Board of Education and the NCHSAA. The letter ultimately offers a veiled threat of further legal action.

The dispute goes back to an athletic conference realignment that placed Tuscola — which has a lower enrollment than 13 class 2A schools — in 3A, where it is forced to contend in the MAC with the likes of TC Roberson — which has a higher enrollment than 11 4A schools. Notably, of the nine schools in the MAC, six are in Buncombe County, meaning they will enjoy the benefits of not having to travel for games.

Last year, Tuscola attempted to appeal the alignment to get reclassified to 2A. However, according to a letter from Smathers to the Board of Education and Department of Public Instruction sent in March 19, it was denied.

“According to Commissioner (Que) Tucker, the reclassification would only be allowed if there was a 10% reduction in the student population,” that letter read.

Tuscola’s enrollment had dropped by 8.6 percent.

In an interview earlier this year with The Mountaineer, Tucker spoke about exactly how it could come to pass that a school with a lower enrollment may end up in a situation like Tuscola’s.

“The bylaws say that [enrollment] should be considered, but it’s not the only determinant for reclassification,” she said. “It’s just like I talked about with that ‘15-16 year, in which the realignment committee was putting schools in conferences — yes, we use enrollment numbers always at that point, but there are other factors that go into it. Sometimes the alignment committee says we need to have a split conference here, other times they say we don’t. And maybe geography comes into it. Geography could mean, well, there’s a mountain sitting right there, so for this school, they’d have to go around this mountain and would be on the highway a tremendous amount of time, so maybe a split conference is in the best interest for all of those schools.”

But Smathers said the letter highlights that while team sports are adversely affected by the redistricting, it is athletes who compete in individual sports who are most adversely affected.

“The NCHSAA is impacting the ability of schools to have fair competition and thereby affecting the experience and success of individual student athletes across the state, not only in the principal sports of football, basketball, and baseball, but most significantly individual student experiences and success in track and field, wrestling, tennis, and other individual centered sports,” the letter reads.”

Smathers elaborated on that thought.

“If they’re playing football, they’re also the ones playing basketball or baseball,” he told The Mountaineer. “If it’s a larger school, they don’t need to play every sport. They can participate in AAU or team travel.”

Basically, those who play individual sports, such as tennis or wrestling, are pitted against a larger pool of talented athletes who have a higher chance in specializing in those sports, Smathers said.

The letter seeks to pursue policy remedies for the NCHSAA rather than litigate, but it is clear that the school board and Tuscola aren’t shy to go that route.

“My client at this point has not elected to proceed with litigation, but the recent decisions by NCHSAA to extend the current conference alignment for an additional one year beyond the current two years, causes us to begin serious consideration,” it reads.

Smathers said litigation is a serious possibility, but they are exploring a few other options, too. He would not say what those options are.

The policy remedies mentioned ultimately boil down to a greater degree of representation and a greater degree of oversight.

“One of the main points we will be addressing to the state board is the need to have a Board of Directors elected on a statewide regional basis rather than the current process of having Board members appointed by the existing Board as the Association’s by-laws now provide. The current process is ripe for self-perpetuating interest, and not consistent with basic principles of fair member representation.”

At the meeting where Tuscola’s appeal was denied, there were only 110 out of 421 board members present, with Tuscola being denied by a 65-44 vote.

“Our position is the low membership turnout is further indication of the lack of support of the NCHSAA and isolation of its governing board and administration,” the letter reads. “Though Tuscola’s appeal was denied by those in attendance, the strong showing of support for Tuscola in a very cumbersome and weighted process, is further evidence of the need for reform by NCHSAA, and active supervision and guidance by the state board.”

Smathers also said that he believes the State Board of Education should be either providing oversight for the NCHSAA or perhaps even coming up with new policies — policies which would be implemented by the State Department of Instruction.

Part of the problem, however, is that the NCHSAA is a nonprofit, thus making the organization a private entity. Smathers addressed this in the letter he sent to the board on March 19.

“First, from a policy perspective, we believe The State Board of Education with the mandate to ‘adopt rules governing interscholastic athletic activities’ should require that decisions of the NCHSAA meet the requirements of all other State entities, and not permit decisions to be made in an arbitrary and capricious manner without due process, including a formal grievance procedure,” that letter reads. “Second, legally, we believe the delegation of authority by The State Board to the NCHSAA requires them to do so as an agent of the state.”

The next step is for Smathers to send a written presentation to Raleigh for the State Board of Education to consider. He said that proposal, a copy of which will be sent to media outlets, should be sent off by the end of the week.

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