St. Paul’s Episcopal School is taking legal action against the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) over a new rule it says unfairly discriminates against private school sports teams because they’re “politically unpopular.”
In a lawsuit filed earlier this week, the Mobile-based private school is targeting the “competitive balance factor” AHSAA introduced last fall that forces successful private schools to play in increasingly larger athletic classification.
The change was introduced, the school claims, under pressure from state lawmakers and some public schools that were unhappy with the recent success some private institutions have seen in athletic competitions, especially in high school football.
The lawsuit notes that, in 2016, state lawmakers from the Madison County area introduced a bill that would have required AHSAA to allow public school members to compete only against other public schools for state championships.
That bill did not pass, but the complaint suggests the CBF rule grew out of that same sentiment.
The AHSAA opted to calculate which teams were too successful using a point system. The structure is: One point for making a state playoff quarterfinal, two points for a semifinal and four points for an appearance in the state championship for any sport.
Teams with more than six points have to move up a classification, though there is some variance in the point threshold for single-gender and sports played by both girls and boys.
The complaint also notes that private school sports teams have already been classified using a “student multiplier” since 2000, which multiples private schools’ enrollment by 1.35 when determining what classification they’ll compete in athletically.
St. Paul’s, which is a 4A school based on its actual enrollment, has competed and thrived in the 5A classification. Since 2014, the school has claimed 27 state titles in multiple sports including the three 5A state football titles its clinched in the past four years.
If left in place, the CBF will require St. Paul’s football, volleyball, golf, outdoor track, indoor track, cross country, soccer, tennis and swimming teams to begin competing in a 6A classification through at least 2022 based on their recent success in statewide playoffs.
It would put the school in class competition with other, public high schools in the Mobile area including Blount, Saraland, Spanish Fort and Daphne — all of which have successful athletic programs of their own, especially in football.
Now, ahead of the CBF taking effect this fall, St. Paul’s is arguing the classification change will put private school teams at a competitive disadvantage and create a greater risk for student injuries in contact sports by forcing small schools to meet much larger ones on the Gridiron.
“[AHSAA]’s disparate treatment of private schools and private school students bears no rational connection to any legitimate state interest,” the complaint reads. “Rather, the [its] imposition of arbitrary, discriminatory and dangerous measures against private schools and private school students was motivated by a bare desire to harm and disadvantage a politically unpopular group.”
The complaint suggests that the rule is “discriminatory” based on its effects but also on its implementation, noting that “many public schools exceeded the CBF’s success test playoff ‘point threshold’ between fall 2014 and spring 2017” but they are not subjected to the same rule.
It goes on to question the reasoning the AHSAA used for implementing the CBF — that private schools have an “unfair” advantage because they have no geographic boundaries and recruit from other areas. The complaint also suggests that, because of school choice initiatives like the Alabama Accountability Act of 2013, public schools are no longer subject to the geographical restrictions they once were, adding that some can, and do, recruit student-athletes.
Attempts to reach administrators at St. Paul’s were not immediately successful, though AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese released a statement on the lawsuit Saturday.
“The Competitive Balance Factor was unanimously approved by the AHSAA Central Board of Control on November 13, 2017, upon the unanimous recommendation of a Classification Committee comprised of representatives from both public and private schools,” he wrote.” I am very disappointed that the process to resolve differences that all member schools agree to upon becoming members was not satisfactory for St. Paul’s Episcopal School.”
Savarese directed all other questions regarding the lawsuit to AHSAA’s legal counsel.
Updated 2:45 p.m., May 27, to include a statement from AHSAA Executive Director Steve Savarese.
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