BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana's high schools leaders sparred Tuesday over new plans for football playoffs that would separate the playoffs for traditional public high schools from those involving private, magnet and charter schools.
Public school principals who pushed the separation told lawmakers the other schools have an unfair advantage because they have more resources and can cherry-pick their students — and football players.
"We don't get to pick the brightest or the strongest or the richest kids," said Jane Griffin, principal of Winnfield Senior High School and sponsor of the split playoff system rule that was approved by the Louisiana High School Athletic Association.
Leaders of the private and charter schools said the change is a form of segregation pushed by public school leaders who resent successful private school football programs. They said the split playoff system tells students if they don't win, they can just change the rules to favor them.
"It's offensive to assume if you succeed, you must be doing something wrong. And where does this all end? Does this go to math competitions?" said Myra Mansur, athletic director of Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge.
The new playoff system will take effect with the upcoming football season, after high school principals voted overwhelmingly for the change at the LHSAA convention.
All schools will continue to compete in the regular season under the same divisions they have used for years, but the rules change in the postseason competition.
Five football championships will be held for the traditional public schools, called "non-select" schools. Two other division championships will be held for private and parochial schools, magnet schools, charter schools and laboratory schools, called "select schools" based on the idea that they can choose the students who attend.
Lawmakers created a special committee to review the playoff change, saying they had received calls from parents in their districts concerned about reworking a system that had been in place for 92 years.
They heard from principals and coaches for more than four hours Tuesday, but said they didn't want to meddle in determining the system rules. Also, it's unclear what authority the Legislature has since the state Supreme Court ruled the LHSAA is a private firm.
"You are the experts in this, and I would implore of you to solve your problem within your organization," said Sen. Ronnie Johns, R-Lake Charles.
Supporters of the split system repeatedly referred to two powerhouse high school football programs that together have won 38 football championships since 1921: John Curtis Christian School in Jefferson Parish and Evangel Christian Academy in Shreveport.
"When a school is able to dominate for 30 years, then something is going on," Griffin said.
Public school principals and football coaches talked of students from other states and other districts being recruited by private schools to improve football teams and private schools choosing scholarship recipients based on sports ability. But they acknowledged their accusations usually weren't forwarded to the LHSAA for investigation.
Kenny Henderson, executive director of the athletic association, said he didn't have any evidence to back up the claims.
Coaches from John Curtis and Evangel defended their schools' performance and said they didn't do anything improper to win football championships.
"I refuse to make an apology for being successful at what we do," said J.T. Curtis, headmaster and head football coach at John Curtis, leading the team to 25 titles during his tenure.
Phillip Deas, football coach at Evangel Christian Academy, said the high school athletic association has audited the school's academic and financial records, finding nothing that violates association rules.
"Maybe we work harder, maybe we teach a different way of thinking, maybe we do something at our place that produces champions in every way of life," Deas said.
He added: "What does a state championship mean if you have eliminated the greatest competition?"
Public school principals and coaches said they weren't trying to rig the system, but were trying to create an equal playing field for schools.