The stroke of a pen is now all that stands in the way of legislation that has the potential to drastically impact the landscape of high school sports in New Jersey.

On Monday, the state Senate and state Assembly passed Bills S2337 and A5254 by 24-10 and 52-14 margins, respectively, that will allow public high schools of any size to merge varsity athletic programs within the same district due to low participation numbers, financial issues or safety concerns because of competitive disadvantage, and do so without any oversight from the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association.

The bills needed 21 votes in the Senate and 41 in the Assembly to pass. In December they unanimously passed both house committees.

They now go to Gov. Chris Christie in his final days in office where his signature officially makes it a law that will go into effect July 1. If Christie does not sign the bill by Jan. 16 it dies and will have to be reintroduced in the next legislative session under Governor-elect Phil Murphy. It is expected Christie will sign the bill and allow programs to merge starting with the 2018-2019 school year.

It is the first time the New Jersey government has interjected itself into high school sports to this degree, passing a law that directly impacts the NJSIAA bylaws.

“Unprecedented,” NJSIAA assistant director and former Southern Regional athletic director Kim DeGraw-Cole said last week.

The intention of the bill, which was authored by state Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer) and Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer), among others, is to avoid a situation similar to what happened in the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District this past football season. West Windsor-Plainsboro North was forced to suspend its varsity football program ahead of the 2017 season because of safety concerns and a declining roster. The school district attempted to merge the programs from WWPS and WWPN but its proposal was voted down by the West Jersey Football League, then the NJSIAA and finally by the New Jersey Department of Education.

NJSIAA bylaws previously prohibited Group III and larger schools from forming cooperative agreements and prohibited any co-ops in basketball, baseball, softball and outdoor track and field. In December, NJSIAA member schools approved a proposal from the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District that allowed larger schools to enter into co-op agreements for football under specific conditions. The proposal passed 179-115.

The new bills, however, allow school districts to merge programs in any sport without approval from their league or the NJSIAA, but opponents of the bill fear the lack of oversight will lead to districts consolidating programs and creating “super teams”.

Prior to the bills passing both houses, NJSIAA Executive Director Larry White urged school officials to contact their local lawmakers and express their concern over the bill and its potential consequences. Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) also voiced his opinion with the legislation on Twitter, saying it “would create havoc for public high school athletic programs in NJ. We don’t need public all star teams, we already have the parochial schools recruiting.”

The NJSIAA urged lawmakers to amend the bill to allow the association to review any potential co-ops, but Turner said she did not amend her bill because she believes the NJSIAA might “look for ways to deny rather than remove barriers or hurdles for children to participate.”

The Shore Conference has five school districts with multiple public high schools – Brick, Toms River, Jackson, Middletown and the Freehold Regional High School District – that could theoretically merge any of its programs under the new bill. Over 20 school districts in New Jersey have multiple high schools, including 12 high schools in Newark.

“I’m not a big fan of it, and I think it can, conceivably, take away opportunities from kids,” said Rich Carroll, the athletic director for the Middletown School District the President of the Shore Conference. “We’ve discussed it internally and we have no plans to co-opt any of our sports. Our numbers are strong.”

“I can certainly understand small schools with low numbers wanting to merge, but the biggest problem is that there has to be accountability. Our two Middletown high schools have 1,400 kids in each, and if we can’t field a team there’s a reason and have to look internally to figure out why.”

Carroll’s worry is the bill could have the same unintended effects as the New Jersey Interdistrict Public School Choice Program Act. Choice schools are supposed to be for academic purposes but have of course been exploited for athletic advantage. Turner initially said she was unaware the choice school act was being used for athlete advantage and recently stated she could always “introduce a new bill” with corrective action to fix any abuses which she said she does not at all expect.

“You hope that people’s intentions are to do the right thing,” said Jackson School District athletic director Rob Paneque, who oversees sports at Jackson Memorial and Jackson Liberty. “We’re not looking to do anything along those lines to create “super teams”. The idea of separate schools in the district is to create opportunities. There could be a time and place for a rationale to merge teams due to numbers, but you hope the purpose is never to create “super teams”.

“I can’t speak for everybody, but I would think for superintendents and people in education that would never be their intent. I don’t foresee that.”

Administrators from Brick, Toms River and the Freehold Regional District could not be immediately reached for comment.

The idea that districts around the state will all the sudden consolidate programs into one all-star team is far-fetched, but it will happen in at least one district sooner than later. That’s when we’ll find out if the same lawmakers who enabled it will step in with a solution.

 

Managing editor Bob Badders can be reached at bob.badders@townsquaremedia.com. Follow him on Twitter @Bob_Badders. Like Shore Sports Network on Facebook and subscribe to our YouTube channel for all the latest video highlights. 

 

Sign Up For The SSN Newsletter

Please fill out this form to sign up for the Shore Sports Network newsletter.