TALLAHASSEE (NSF) – A measure overhauling the Florida High School Athletic Association — and opening the door to the group possibly being replaced in two years — was approved Thursday by the House Education Committee on a nearly party-line vote.
Members of the panel voted to move the measure (PCB EDC 15-02) ahead on a 12-5 vote, with Rep. Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, D-Tallahassee, joining Republicans in support. Democrats said they were worried about some provisions in the bill, including one that would allow the education commissioner to designate another organization to oversee high-school sports in 2017.
Some also worried that parts of the proposal could open the door to more recruiting of students to switch high schools, though that is technically illegal and would remain so under the bill.
The legislation comes amid years of tension between some lawmakers, particularly in the House, and the association. The FHSAA doesn’t support the proposal, but representatives said the association backs most of the provisions outside of the one that could lead to it being replaced.
“It’s long past the time to limit the power of a very large, protectionist organization and place our priorities with the students,” said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City. “I only wish it had happened of the association’s own volition, and not (because FHSAA) had to be forced to change.”
A similar Senate measure (SB 1480) hasn’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.
The House proposal would overhaul the organization’s governance, setting up a 16-member board to oversee the association. It would also require a third-party review for students suspected of being ineligible and allow students to continue to play while their eligibility is reviewed, though games could be forfeited if the student is later ruled ineligible.
High schools would also be allowed to join FHSAA for some sports, but not in others — particularly football.
But much of the opposition is driven by the provision requiring the education commissioner, with the backing of the State Board of Education, to make a decision in 2017 on whether to keep the association or replace it. The bill also would set up a review of the organization every three years.
The commissioner could technically replace the association under current law, but there is no requirement for a review to be done regularly or by a certain date.
“We think that that is rather arbitrary and that, as a representative democracy, which this association is, if it’s truly violating people’s rights and not looking out for the best interests of our athletes, then FHSAA should be removed,” said Juhan Mixon, representing the association. “But we think that that should come back to this Legislature, and not be put in the legislation at this time.”
Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said the vagueness of the process lacked transparency.
“At a minimum, we ought to be saying what the criteria are, what these people need to do,” Geller said.
But Rep. Manny Diaz Jr., a Hialeah Republican offering the proposal, said the provision would actually give the association a “two-year buffer” to make necessary changes.
“At the end of the day, I do believe that they are in the strongest position, that they have the experience and they will continue to do this,” Diaz told reporters after the hearing.
Stuart Weiss, president of the Sunshine State Athletic Conference, said the FHSAA had changed in recent years precisely because of the threat of legislation. Schools in Weiss’ organization play football separately from the association, but still have to be members and have to honor the association’s rules.
“You can’t give a quasi-monopoly to an organization, not oversee (it) and see what they do,” Weiss said.
The News Service of Florida’s Brandon Larrabee contributed to this report.