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Judge hears debate over football reclassification plan

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Activities Association will go into today’s board meeting with no new information to help set future football schedules in Arkansas after a judge Monday heard a day of testimony on new classifications that require private schools to play higher up, but issued no ruling.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mary McGowan was told by AAA officials Monday that football programs at private high schools have an advantage over public school programs and new rules that take effect this fall will level the playing field. For classification purposes, private schools must count student population by multiplying their number by 1.75. That’s an increase from last year’s multiplier of 1.35.

Opponents of the new classifications and conference reshuffling told the judge that the Arkansas Activities Association decided on the changes arbitrarily, based on misinformation about private schools, and that the new rules are unfair to students at some private schools in state.

“I felt like this was a prescription for getting (football players) hurt,” said Gary Holt, who filed the lawsuit against the AAA and outgoing executive director Jimmy Coats. Holt’s son is to be a senior football player at Arkansas Baptist in Little Rock.

After a day-long hearing, the judge gave attorneys for both sides until Wednesday to submit further briefs. She gave no indication on when she would rule on Holt’s motion, but said she was “keenly aware of the time constraint that everyone has at this point.”

Football season begins this month and the lawsuit asks that the multiplier remain at 1.35 and that schedules be redrawn for the upcoming season.

Holt’s attorney, Ken Shemin of Fayetteville, told the judge the lawsuit concerns only football programs and that he would present a plan Wednesday detailing how only a few teams would have to change their fall schedules if she rules in favor of their injunction.

Both Shemin and Holt rejected arguments that reverting to last year’s system for rating classifications would cause scheduling chaos.

“That’s ridiculous,” Holt testified, adding that only 10 private schools in Arkansas have football programs.

Holt testified he filed the lawsuit after he learned that his son’s team would move up two classifications and play against teams with more than twice as many players.

He said Arkansas Baptist, which won just three games last year, has only 25 players and most play offense, defense and special teams.

“This is absolutely and assuredly going to create mismatches,” he said, adding that the 1.75 multiplier was probably proposed by a coach from a larger high school that lost to Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale.

Using the new multiplier, student enrollment at Arkansas Baptist will increase from 211 to 274. Only Tennessee among surrounding states has a higher multiplier, at 1.8.

The AAA is to meet today to vote on whether to reduce the multiplier to 1.5 for the 2008-2009 season and 2009-2010 season. That proposal is being pitched by Pulaski Academy in Little Rock.

Holt said that in addition to the possibility of an increase in injuries, private schools will face longer bus rides to games.

Under its new conference assignment, Arkansas Baptist is to travel nearly 650 miles for league games over the next two years, compared to 402 miles the team traveled the past two years, Holt said.

As part of its rescheduling the AAA also is increasing the number of classifications from five to seven. Arkansas Baptist is to move up from Class 3A to 5A this fall.

The 1.35 multiplier, in place since 2000, was supported by private schools, Holt testified.

Lance Taylor, who recently was selected executive director of the AAA, testified that several new football programs, including Springdale’s Har-Ber High School, would have no conference if Holt’s idea to return to last year’s system is upheld by the court.

Taylor also testified that the decision to go to the 1.75 multiplier was based on recommendations by public high school coaches and administrators rather than any studies or reports.

He said coaches and administrators believe private schools have an advantage by potentially being allowed to take students from within designated public school districts, while public schools are limited by district boundaries. Private schools often have better facilities, are better financed and have more parental participation, Taylor said.

Shemin suggested that Taylor and the AAA had a bias against private schools and that the decision to raise the multiplier was made based on those feelings rather than on facts.

Ed McCorkle, attorney for the AAA, noted that most players on the annual all-Metro football team in Pulaski County were from private schools, and that six of the nine private schools in the state with football programs made the state tournament last year.

Jerry Welch, athletic director of the private school, Pulaski Academy, testified that changing conference assignments now would cause chaos. Welch, who also was a coach and administrator in the Pulaski County School District before going to the private school, said private school students have advantages in football.

After the hearing, Holt said he never expected McGowan to rule the day of the hearing, but he was surprised she wasn’t interested in a proposal to send the issue to a mediator.

“I guess we’re both so entrenched in our positions it would be a waste of time,” he said.

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