Superintendents enter public-private debate

Superintendents from across the state, including some in District 6, are joining the fray in the debate about the separation of public and private school playoffs.

“We got to where we’re meeting to talk, because we have to do what’s best for our students,” Portage Superintendent Eric Zelanko said. “We’re looking to see, and I don’t want to throw anyone under the bus, but we have to have the discussion. It’s snow-balling now. We have 90 schools and over 250 people coming to the meeting. I’m not even sure the venue is big enough to hold everyone.

“This needs to change, or we need to look at a new association. No one really wants that, though. People try to say we’re trying to boot out privates and charters, and that’s not the case. I’m all for competition in the regular season, but in the postseason everyone deserves a chance. When you have a once-in-a-lifetime team, and you are beaten by a stacked powerhouse, that’s tough.”

The meeting will take place on Tuesday, July 24 at the Ramada Conference Center in State College from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. The public will not be allowed to attend.

The superintendents decided to meet after some felt disappointed with the PIAA’s June meeting. The topic of holding separate playoffs for public and private schools was never addressed.

“There are a number of superintendents across the state that feel principals and ADs have tried to convey to the PIAA that there are concerns about the current playoff system,” Harmony Superintendent Stuart Albaugh said. “With them being ignored, the superintendents are getting together, because we are of the mindset there is a problem. Whenever you go to a group that’s in charge of our students and nothing is done, it’s our obligation to provide options to solve the concerns.”

According to Zelanko, the public side of the issue did not receive a forum at the most recent PIAA meeting.

“My involvement came when I reached out to John Sarandrea, the superintendent at New Castle who had expressed concerns out his way, and told him I wanted to do something in District 6,” Zelanko said. “I decided to go to the meeting with the PIAA. It’s not something I usually plan for, to run to Harrisburg, but the PIAA spoke, an association of the Catholics spoke, the charter school representative spoke, but there was no public school speaking.”

During the PIAA meeting, PIAA Executive Director Dr. Robert Lombardi referred to some “rogue” superintendents unhappy with the current playoff system according to Zelanko and Central Cambria Superintendent Jason Moore. The comment seemed to bother the local superintendents, both of whom attended the June meeting.

“We were told that there would be a separate hearing in the fall where they would hear from public schools,” Moore said. “But we haven’t heard anything about it since. I guess I was one of the rogue superintendents trying to stir things up.”

“Dr. Lombardi referred to superintendents that had concerns with the playoff system as rogue superintendents,” Zelanko said. “I took offense, because by definition that makes us seem like scoundrels. I asked the District 6 committee to do a survey and was told nothing. I got no response, and I talked about it at a superintendent meeting and told them I’d make a request every month. When it was clear to see the (committee) didn’t want to hear the response, we all started communicating. We represent all the classifications, it’s not just a bunch of 1A schools. We wanted to talk to each other and see if there were the same feelings everywhere.”

The motivation behind the meeting is centered on doing what’s right for their students, according to the superintendents the Mirror spoke with Thursday evening.

“It’s time to act on it. It’s a morality issue with us,” Moore said. “None of us have animosity toward non-public schools, it’s just when our kids compete against them it’s not a level playing field. Our kids are from mostly two townships and people we play against come from multiple states.”

Zelanko said he usually stays out of sports-related issues, but he felt it was time to take a stand.

“I’m not the most pro-sports superintendent that there is, in fact a lot of our coaches would say I’m a non-sports superintendent,” Zelanko said. “But this issue has been going on for years and years. You get a once-in-a-lifetime team, and we run into a powerhouse team, basically an AAU team, and it isn’t fair.”

The PIAA is trying to pass a transfer rule that would make any player transferring from one school to another after reaching 10th grade ineligible to play the first postseason at their new school. The rule is being hailed as an attempt to fix the problem between the boundary and non-boundary schools.

“It’s a Band-Aid on a bullet wound,” Moore said. “The PIAA and Dr. Lombardi are just doing something for the sake of doing something.”

The topic of separating from the PIAA has come up, but each superintendent the Mirror spoke with expressed that was only as a last resort.

“All superintendents go through leadership training,” Moore said. “They teach you to come to an organization with solutions, so we’re not just going to complain, we’re going to give suggestions of what we’d like to see. If nothing happens, we might have to look at fixing things ourselves.”

The plan is to come up with some resolutions to the issue at the meeting and present them to the PIAA.

“We just want to see equity when it comes to playoff time,” Moore said. “You can’t have a handful of schools winning 75 percent of the championships. It’s hard to tell kids to work hard and you’ll be successful, then you face a school in the playoffs and get pounded.”