TRENTON, N.J. – Ground-breaking changes to the state’s high school athletic program are about to hit the desk of Gov. Chris Christie.

According to legislation passed by both the state assembly and senate on Monday, local high schools that are a part of a multi-secondary school district will now be allowed to combine teams in any sport if either school has trouble fielding a team.

Larry Busichio, Director of Athletics & Student Activites at Columbia High School, stated by email that the new legislation is a real concern, "I’m not sure why this policy was pushed and who it will actually benefit.  Especially since the NJSIAA had policies in place already to help schools with low participation numbers and struggling programs."

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Buscichio explained that there are already guidelines in place making it possible for a school with low numbers of players in a sport to apply for a cooperative program status. Columbia High School and Nutley High School created an ice hockey team with students from the two high schools this year.

"Nutley’s numbers were down and [Columbia High School] had 7 kids who wanted to play hockey so we applied to the NJSIAA for a co-op team with Nutley," stated Busichio. "That opened opportunities for kids in schools that couldn’t support a program on their own, but it was monitored so teams couldn’t create 'super teams.' Now, with this legislation, two schools in the same district could drop a program and combine students from both schools."

Sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D-Mercer/Middlesex) and Assemblywoman Annette Quijano (D-Union), the bill is an effort to reverse a Fall 2017 NJSIAA decision that prevented West Windsor-Plainsboro High School from fielding a varsity football program due to a decline in participation.

“Football offers much more than just athletic rewards,” Benson, who represents Plainsboro, said in a press release announcing the legislation.  “It’s a community in and of itself and for many students it’s a pathway to future opportunities, opening the door to college and beyond. It’s also a booster for countless other programs, such as the marching band and cheerleading, all of which would suffer if a football program is forced to shut down. This bill will ensure that programs can stay afloat for the sake of all of these students.”

NJSIAA procedures used to prohibit schools that are designated sized “Group 3 or higher” from forming a “co-op” with other schools for football. However, during a vote at its December business meeting, NJSIAA member schools voted to allow schools to combine teams, but not be eligible for the state tournament.

According to NJSIAA executive director Larry White, the bill will “grant super powers” to the 20 school districts that have multiple high schools.

“As background, these bills would allow schools within the same school district to merge teams for any varsity-level sport, with neither external oversight nor review,” White said in an op-ed last week. “The result would grant 20 multi-school districts, unilateral, unchecked super powers over 415 other schools and hundreds of thousands of children.

“This legislation takes into account a few school districts while forgetting about the smaller districts, said McCann”

“For those living within one of 20 school districts with multiple high schools, the proposed legislation could close the door to playing opportunities for your kids. For those residing outside one of the aforementioned school districts, this legislation will give those 20 districts authority and powers you simply do not have, as they expose your children to unfair competition, all without oversight or review.”

Quijano said the bill is an opportunity for all students to participate in varsity athletics.

“All students within a school district should have equal access to extracurricular programs regardless of which school in the district they attend,” she said. “This bill is just plain old common sense.”

“I hope that the NJSIAA can come up with a way to monitor this.  If not it will become another ‘choice school’ problem, where coaches and schools are recruiting for their own benefit, said McCann”

White and the NJSIAA believe this bill will have the same outcome as the “school choice” legislation that allowed certain school districts to enroll students from outside of boundaries. According to the NJSIAA, the school choice program directly led to state championships for the Bound Brook wrestling program and Hoboken football program.

Multiple reports said Christie will sign the bill before he leaves office next week.

TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove  is an online newspaper serving the Townships of Verona and Cedar Grove. TAPinto Verona/Cedar Grove is accredited by the New Jersey Press Association, and is a locally owned news organization serving the community.

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