LEWISTOWN - Newspapers across the state were approached earlier this month with a plea from two people who know an awful lot about high school basketball - Karns City superintendent Larry Henry, whose district won a Class AA title in 2000, and Lewistown girls coach Kevin Kodish, who took teams to the finals three times, winning twice.
But, the two note, their success is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to PIAA basketball playoffs, as the tournaments have been dominated by parochial schools. This came about, the two contend, because of a change in the Public School Code that the PIAA says forced it to admit private schools as members beginning in 1972.
"Because of their very nature, private schools are vastly different from public schools. Geographic boundaries must be adhered to on the public school level, while private schools have no such limitations," the letter from the two notes. "Thus, there aren't uniform standards being followed. All schools, whether public or private, deserve to know who their respective champions are according to size and type of school."
The solution, Kodish and Henry believe, is a modification to the law that would allow - but not require - the PIAA to operate separate tournaments for the two types of schools.
"The PIAA has made it quite clear that they will not change the classification system as it pertains to private schools until there is some sort of legislative action to support the organization," Kodish said. "The PIAA leadership has repeatedly stated that if change is to occur then the legislature must pass an amendment to the public school code that would allow them to create separate classifications for public and private schools."
Kodish said the PIAA has responded to past requests for relief by pointing to the law, and that the organization fears being sued should it try to change the current system without the authority to do so granted by the legislature. But the legislature has taken a hands-off approach to the PIAA in the past. In fact, a special legislative oversight committee that was formed to monitor the PIAA - coincidentally, in the same time frame that Kodish led the Lewistown girls to a pair of state titles - essentially did nothing to change the way the PIAA operates.
"The committee noted in its report that a disproportionate number of championships were being won by private schools in basketball. They also saw the potential for the same thing to occur in other sports as well," Kodish points out. "However, the PIAA presented its case as to the current law, and the Oversight Committee decided not to recommend any change. The PIAA bylaws call for treating all schools equally, and the Oversight Committee felt that legislative change would be necessary in order to effectuate change.
"I believe the Legislature will be more receptive to change now because the language we are asking for would allow the PIAA to conduct separate tournaments and not mandate it," he continued. "The legislators can pass a law with better language, but it will be up to PIAA to pass and implement the classification change."
Which, he said, means the legislature can say it didn't force anything on the PIAA.
But will legislators - especially those from population centers where most of the private schools are found - support this change?
"Those legislators would potentially feel more heat if they supported a change. However, there still would be many more public school advocates in those districts," Kodish said. "This initiative doesn't need unanimous support - just a majority.
"The PIAA has made it clear that legislative action is the only thing that will cause a change. At this point, we believe constituents talking to their legislators is the best vehicle."
Ultimately, Kodish looks for a system that keeps all PIAA schools involved in the same leagues throughout the regular season, but simply adds a new means of classifying private schools when it comes to the postseason - he insists it is not the goal of his initiative to kick parochial schools out of the PIAA.
"There are many parochial schools playing in leagues with public schools throughout our state. As long as a school is a PIAA member school, they are welcome to play league and non-league games against each other regardless of whether they are public or private," he said. "Our group would like to see the teams classified by type (public or private) as well. Everyone would still enjoy the chance to participate in PIAA championship events."