In a letter to NJSIAA Executive Director Steven Timko, dated Dec 28, Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe rejected two ballot initiatives approved by NJSIAA members earlier this month.  The proposed changes to high school football and wrestling would have separated public and non-public schools.

The ballots garnered wide approval from the member Athletic Directors and Principals at the Dec 7 NJSIAA annual business meeting.  The vote was 215-128 to create a non-public football conference and 216-121 to separate the state wrestling tournament.

Sparta School District Superinendent Dennis Tobin's response to Hespe's letter:

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I would like to preface my comments/statement on two things.  First, none of my comments are targeted at any one parochial school, as this is a long standing state problem and not a local one.  Two, although they are my personal opinions and comments, they are based on forty years of experience as a former high school student-athlete, varsity basketball coach, building and district administrator, and father of three student-athletes. My opinions are also shared by the majority of high school coaches, athletic directors, and principals as evident by the most recent state vote on realigning the football and wrestling conferences for 2016-2017.

Although I respect Commissioner Hespe's ruling, as it is a big decision placed on one person that effects so many people in New Jersey athletics, I am disappointed he has chosen to overturn the vote made by a large majority of school administrators.  The NJDOE and NJSIAA have acknowledged that state athletic issues exists, most notably concerns related to competitive balance, but have failed to come up with a resolution to address this long standing problem.

The fact remains that public schools and non-public schools build their athletic programs in vastly different ways.  Public schools work closely with their township feeder programs and rely on developing student-athletes and high school programs within a township, while non-public schools have student-athletes participate in their programs from townships all over the state, and in some instances out-of-state and from other countries.  Some folks, including the media, like to use the phrase that private schools ‘attract’ student-athletes to their programs, which to some degree may be true. However, it is my belief and that of many others, that a large number of the so-called ‘blue chip athletes’ are recruited to play at certain parochial athletic programs.  Some of these athletes are housed with host families, as well as being provided assistance with school tuition and sometimes transportation.  Yes, I am very well aware of how to do all this within the established rules and guidelines.

Another major problem that exists in New Jersey high school athletics is student-athletes continuously transferring from one school to another, often not sitting out any time at their new school as per NJSIAA rules. This occurs because students simply change their legal residency by living with a relative or host family.  There have been some athletes who have played a fall sport at one school and another sport (winter or spring) at another school within the same school year without sitting out one game.  This happens more frequently then it should and the NJSIAA depends too much on public schools monitoring this issue rather than placing that responsibility with the state organization.

My personal issue with these long standing state athletic issues is that they have prevented public school programs and student-athletes from competing on a fair playing field for league championships and individual conference player recognition.  I will say this as a former coach in our district; if I were able to have a roster of our Sparta ‘blue chip’ players and surround them with a few other ‘blue chip’ players from other townships I would feel pretty confident that we would be a very successful program year in and year out. 

That being said, I would not trade my personal experience of working with parents, students, and athletes from one township for any of the other options. It is gratifying to develop community pride through successful student programs whether that be academic, athletics, music or the arts. My dissatisfaction with the progress in finding a solution for these issues does not in any way detract from the pride I feel for our Sparta athletic program.

I think most people will acknowledge that there are issues within the state regarding competitive balance among private and public school athletic programs.  It is time for developing and implementing a solution.