Hearing set on bill to regulate MSHSAA

Monday, May 7, 2007

A Missouri House committee will hold a hearing Tuesday in the state capitol on legislation that seeks to regulate the Missouri State High School Activities Association.

The bill's sponsor, state Rep. Jane Cunningham, R-Chesterfield, said she filed House Bill 1232 in an effort to rein in MSHSAA. She contends the organization is out of control and has unfairly punished both member schools and student athletes over the years.

MSHSAA officials, she claimed, feel they are above the law. "They are an independent organization that is really accountable to no one," said Cunningham, who chairs the elementary and secondary education committee in the House that will be hearing the legislation Tuesday night.

MSHSAA officials insist that the organization is voluntary and accountable to its member public and private schools. But critics view the association as a powerful, dictatorial monopoly that rules over high school and junior high school sports and other activities competition.

The organization of more than 1,000 public and private schools governs competitions from sports to marching band.

The bill seeks to regulate MSHSAA through legislative scrutiny and opens the door for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to provide oversight at the discretion of the State Board of Education.

Under the bill, no public school could participate in MSHSAA or any similar association unless that organization's rules and regulations pass the scrutiny of the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules. The committee of five senators and five representatives is charged with monitoring proposed and existing rules of the various departments and divisions of state government.

Cunningham's bill would allow DESE to provide administrative oversight for all public schools that participate in any extracurricular activities as well as any private school that elects to have the state agency provide such supervision.

MSHSAA executive director Kerwin Urhahn plans to attend the hearing. But Urhahn said he doesn't intend to testify. "The member schools are the ones that are going to have to stand up. This is their association," he said.

Urhahn said he has talked to members of the association board and expects some school officials to testify against the legislation.

When the bill was filed earlier this spring, MSHSAA issued a brief statement. "As an organization, we're always concerned with legislation that would take control away from our member schools and the democratic system they have established," the statement read.

Cunningham said her bill isn't likely to win passage this legislative session, which ends May 18.

But she said Tuesday's hearing could be the first step in further efforts to correct what she sees as the abuses of MSHSAA.

Cunningham said the hearing on HB 1232 sets the stage for the work of a special House committee that will investigate the operations of MSHSAA once this session ends.

Cunningham said the committee plans to hold hearings and could propose new legislation next year to control MSHSAA.

Naylor School District superintendent Stephen Cookson, whose district has been at odds with MSHSAA since last year, plans to testify at Tuesday's hearing.

"It's just a chance to get to tell our story," said Cookson, who has charged association officials aren't consistent in handling complaints involving eligibility of student athletes.

Cookson said MSHSAA punished the tiny Naylor school system in January over alleged eligibility violations while ignoring possible violations in the Bell City School District.

Naylor school officials filed a complaint against the Bell City School District on Feb. 6. Bell City officials have characterized Naylor's allegations as frivolous.

Among other things, Naylor alleges that a Bell City High School boys basketball player was improperly enrolled and that several student athletes lived outside the district in violation of MSHSAA rules.

The complaint against Bell City is pending. Urhahn said he won't comment on the matter while the investigation is proceeding.

Cookson said school districts have no choice but to follow the edicts of MSHSAA officials. "If you want to play high school sports, you have to be a member. It borders on extortion," he said, adding that schools pay thousands of dollars in dues to the association.

In the case of public schools, he said, those dues are paid with tax money.

Cunningham said a tax-supported organization like MSHSAA needs oversight. "When they take taxpayer money with no accountability from the government or legislature, that is just inappropriate," she said.


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