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Negotiations nearly complete for high school sports regulations

ATLANTA — Negotiations are almost finished for new regulations that key state lawmakers want to govern high school sports.

They want to have a look in on the Georgia High School Association, the group that decides the classifications, regions and ticket prices for high school sports from baseball to wrestling, and which gets most of its revenue from taxpayer-financed fields and courts.

Key votes Tuesday will determine exactly what lawmakers will put on Gov. Nathan Deal’s desk. Some expect a revived legislative oversight committee and rules on who runs GHSA.

“At all levels I have heard questions about (player) eligibility and (schools) moving from region to region,” said state Rep. Chuck Martin, R-Alpharetta, a high school sports fan, sometime coach and father of former players.

“There is a perception out there that if you bother GHSA, you get clobbered when the next region realignment comes,” he said at a hearing on Senate Bill 343, one of two GHSA bills running through the Legislature.

Every two years, the GHSA groups schools into classifications based on the number of students attending schools. The largest are AAAAAA schools, which have from about 1,800 to 3,500 students. Then GHSA looks at geography to group together schools of roughly the same size.

Ralph Swearngin, executive director of the GHSA, told Martin’s Budget and Fiscal Affairs Oversight Committee there are a few eternal tensions its 58-member board must manage.

“That’s kind of the rub that we get: Do we want to keep the same sizes (of schools) or do we want to keep the number of schools the same?” Swearngin asked.

For example, he said, if AAAAAA were narrowed to schools of 2,000 or more, there would be complaints from the next level down, saying there are too many schools in their division.

“What trumps? Is it geography? Or access to championships? We don’t have consensus,” Swearngin said.

The board that makes that decision needs to turn over more and also boot retirees from its membership, according to state Sen. Jeff Mullis, R-Chickamauga, Senate Bill 383’s author. His bill calls for two, two-year term limits and for all 58 members of the GHSA board to be active public or private school employees.

“We’re helping them reconstitute the board,” said Mullis, adding, “we’re just trying to have a balanced association.”

Mullis and others have criticized the board for not mirroring Georgia’s demographics. Numbers of females and people of color have been underrepresented for years, he said.

Mullis’ bill and Senate Bill 288 by state Sen. Charlie Bethel, R-Dalton, both call to revive the High School Athletics Overview Committee, where 12 lawmakers would have the power to “inquire into and review” the GHSA.

One of the things Martin wants to “inquire into” is ticket prices for championship games.

Tickets top out at $20 for football finals at the Georgia Dome, according to GHSA figures, making that sport its cash cow. Others, like the $5 for cross county finals, only cover expenses.

“I don’t care how much you charge me as an adult to get in, … but it bothers me that a middle school kid has to pay as much,” Martin said.

He wrote an amendment capping the playoff ticket price for students at the same price they pay for regular season games, if the playoff is on a campus. However, he ended up leaving the amendment on the table, and GHSA plans to look at pricing at its April meeting.

House approval of Senate Bill 288 would send it back to the Senate for approval of minor edits before heading to the governor’s desk. Martin’s committee is scheduled to vote on Senate Bill 343 on Tuesday as well.

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