The Virginia High School League looks poised for another restructuring, but a bill put before the General Assembly last Wednesday could portend more profound changes to the league’s voting structure down the line.
One day after the VHSL announced a shakeup in its conference and regional groupings, Delegate Glenn Davis (R-Va. Beach) introduced a piece of legislation aimed at eliminating the league’s longstanding one-vote-per-school policy in favor of a more representative model based on student enrollment. The move would tilt voting power away from small schools scattering the state and toward larger schools in highly populated areas like Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond.
House Bill No. 965 asserts that no public school should remain a member of any organization that classifies schools based on student enrollment — as the VHSL does — unless that organization “apportions voting rights to member schools based on the same formula.” The VHSL, a private, non-profit organization overseeing all the public school sports teams in the state, currently provides each of its 316 member schools with one vote in membership meetings, regardless of student body size or athlete participation numbers.
Davis proposed similar legislation last January, only to see HB1415 killed by the Education Committee before it could get to the floor of the General Assembly. The bill’s demise didn’t surprise Davis, who pointed out that legislation often takes two or three go-arounds to get passed by legislators pouring over some 2,000 bills during the General Assembly’s 45-day regular session. This year’s session extends to 60 days, as it falls on an even-numbered calendar year.
Davis believes a more straightforward approach gives his bill a better chance of passing this time around. Last year’s iteration focused on the way VHSL dues are paid, stipulating that schools paying more in annual dues should receive more votes during state-wide legislative matters. The concept seemed simple enough, but it failed to address a complicated due-paying formula that fluctuates year-to-year based on changing enrollment and participation numbers.
This year’s bill deals only with alignment, suggesting that schools and regions with more people should carry more votes.
“The goal still is to provide the parents and students in Hampton Roads and Northern Virginia and Richmond the same voice as those in other parts of the state have,” said Davis, an alumnus of 5A South region member Green Run High. “That was the goal last year; that’s the goal this year. The parents feel as passionate about it this year as they did last year.”
Perhaps some parents do feel passionately about lingering representational inequities, but the same can’t be said of some of the leaders in Northern Virginia, at least when it comes to Davis’s legislation. Though he echoes his county’s long-held frustration with the VHSL’s voting procedure, Fairfax County Public Schools Student Activities and Athletics Director Bill Curran doesn’t like the precedent that might be set with government involvement.
“I’m not a fan of the state legislature being involved in the Virginia High School League,” said Curran, a former government teacher. “While I don’t disagree with the intent of what they’re talking about, the method isn’t something I’m a huge fan of.”
Curran’s counterpart in neighboring Prince William County shares a similar view. Fred Milbert, Prince William’s Supervisor for Athletics, admits that HB965 has barely been discussed by his county’s leadership. He wondered about the need for such legislation in light of this month’s proposed reclassification, which athletic directors around the state hail as a significant improvement over the tribulations brought on by the league’s 2013 reclassification.
“Looking at alignment and those kinds of things, I don’t see where having multiple votes is going to change that or impact that,” Milbert said. “Everybody’s aligning according to numbers of students anyway and regions can make their own decisions about things, so I’m not really sure I see the advantage of it.”
This year’s realignment proposal — set to take effect during the 2017-18 school year if it gets final approval from the VHSL executive committee on February 17 — has quelled many of the grievances held by bigger schools that felt left in the dark by the league’s 2013 restructuring. Milbert, for one, was relieved to learn that Prince William County schools would no longer be stuck in the 6A South region, where over the last two years Northern Virginia schools like Woodbridge and Forest Park were sometimes forced to travel to Richmond and Virginia Beach for region tournaments. Forest Park, according to Milbert, had to pay over $40,000 out of pocket for travel expenses stemming from the success of its track and field and girls’ basketball teams two years ago, while Woodbridge had to travel 200 miles round-trip for a 26-0 loss to Thomas Dale in the first round of the 6A South region football playoffs last fall.
Pending the proposal’s final approval next month, each of the six classifications will break down into four regions, replacing the current North and South divisions. That change, hashed out by schools across the state tinkering the district and regional proposals to their liking, seems to have gone a long way toward allaying the concerns that spawned HB1415 in the first place.
Not everyone is willing to let this year’s bill go by the wayside, however. Kevin Martingayle, a Virginia Beach litigation and appeals attorney who helped urge Davis to draft last year’s legislation, laments a one-vote-per-school policy that got the VHSL into its reclassification mess in the first place. The VHSL heard no appeals from Hampton Roads during last Wednesday’s proposal meeting in Charlottesville, but Martingayle insists that Davis’s legislation is not meant to alter this year’s reclassification measures.
“What I’m trying to do is say that the principle of one man, one vote will lead to a much more reasonable discussion about what is good for the maximum number of students in Virginia,” Martingayle said. “That’s the discussion we ought to be having.”
Martingayle’s criticism of a league that flouts representative democracy is backed by some skewed numbers. While the big 5A and 6A schools in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond account for the vast majority of the state’s population, they are outnumbered 210-105 by the smaller schools scattering the state in classes 1A through 4A. A high school like Robinson in Fairfax, which has 2,645 students and about 900 student-athletes playing 19 varsity sports, has no more representation in the VHSL than Thomas Walker, a school in the southwestern corner of the state with a total enrollment of 285 students.
Bobby Pannenbacker, the athletic director at Norfolk’s Lake Taylor High, told the Virginian-Pilot last year that smaller schools in favor of the 2013 reclassification represented nearly 100,000 students while the larger ones stood for nearly 275,000.
Still, VHSL Executive Director Ken Tilley insists the league’s voting structure is sound. Tilley, a firm proponent of the 2013 reclassification, spoke against Davis’s bill last year, and he will likely do so again this year.
“The league has operated for more than 100 years on the basis of a one-school, one-vote principal,” said Tilley, a Norfolk native. “I think that has served us well, and I see no reason to change it.”
Though most states around the country mirror the VHSL’s one-school, one-vote principal when it comes to governing public school athletics, Maryland trends closer to Martingayle’s representative model with regard to legislative powers. The Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association selects representatives from each county based on member schools’ total enrollment in grades 9-11. Montgomery County, the state’s largest county, has five representatives on the MPSSAA Board of Control, while Kent County, among the smallest in the state, has two.
That type of representative voting, in the eyes of people like Davis and Martingayle, could help the VHSL avoid future legislation that leaves its largest constituencies out to dry.
“I don’t feel the need to dictate whether we have six divisions or four divisions or any of that stuff,” said Martingayle, who has three kids attending 5A South member Princess Anne. “I just want to know that when votes are being cast on behalf of my children, that they’re not being punished because they happen to be from a more populous part of the state.”
Davis expects HB965 to go before committee sometime in the next two weeks. If the bill passes, it would become law on July 1.