School districts had barely begun complying with Pennsylvania’s new Athletic Disclosure Act before a move was launched in Harrisburg to weaken and eventually kill the law.
State Rep. Donna Oberlander, R-Clarion, introduced House Bill 1734 in October, which would reduce many of the reporting mandates and add a “sunset” provision erasing the law if Harrisburg doesn’t renew it in 2016.
In her memorandum explaining the bill, Oberlander wrote that the new disclosure law “entails a time-consuming and burdensome unfunded mandate on our public schools.” The bill is currently tabled.
Several local district officials agreed the reports were labor intensive. “It was a lot of extra work,” Hanover Area Business Manager Tom Cipriano said, adding other business managers he talked to had similar sentiments. “All of us were feeling the same way. It was a lot of information gathering for the first time. Will it be easier next time? I don’t know.”
“It’s an exhausting effort,” Wyoming Valley West Business Manager Joe Rodriguez echoed.
And it was made more complex by inadequate guidance from the state, Wyoming Valley West Athletic Director Sandy MacKay said. “How I do it and how someone else does it may be completely different, and we both may be doing it wrong.”
“The reporting process was very time consuming and was especially so in a school district the size of Hazleton,” Hazleton Area Athletic Director Fred Barletta wrote in an email. Hazleton Area is not only the largest district in Luzerne County, it has seven elementary/middle schools housing students through eighth grade. The state requires data for grades seven through 12. Add the high school and career center, and Hazleton Area had to file nine reports.
No one interviewed felt the law should necessarily be repealed, but all said the reporting requirements should be streamlined, not only to reduce the workload for districts, but to make the reports more accurate.
MacKay and others noted the lines are often blurred between grades seven through nine, with students from one grade playing the same game as students from another, or two grades having separate teams but traveling to games together. Breaking up costs among them can be a guessing game.
The current report forms also leave no room for the complexity of multiple teams competing at a single event. MacKay cited cross country, where four teams may be at a single meet, or wrestling tournaments, with as many as 20 teams.
Barletta noted that “In most sports varsity and JV practice, participate, travel, etc., together as one, and this could not be accurately reported in the current format.” Barletta also noted that, except for boys and girls basketball, athletes from “each of our seven middle schools are pooled together to form one team.”
The number of athletes vary on each team, and some teams may have no athletes from some schools. Barletta said the current system doesn’t accommodate such nuances, so “the data I submitted is based on the given number divided by seven.”
Proponents of the new reporting requirement counter that much of the data is already collected in one form or another by districts, and that colleges have been filling out similar reports for nearly 20 years, thanks to a federal law passed in 1994 (a bill creating such a federal mandate for middle and high schools was introduced last summer in Washington but not acted upon).
When Gov. Tom Corbett signed the disclosure act in June 2012, Pennsylvania became only the fourth state in the country with such a requirement. The idea had been pushed for more than two years by then-state Sen. Mary Jo White, R-Verango County, according to an article in the Philadelphia Inquirer three weeks after the law was signed.
White, who retired from the Senate at the end of last year, told the Inquirer that she had first introduced the bill in 2009 because “there are regions where girls’ athletics is a priority. But some districts may be surprised at how bad they’re doing.”
The state does plan to post all the data online beginning Wednesday, meeting a requirement of the law. Districts are also required to post reports on their websites, but there are no provisions for penalties if they don’t.
A check of Luzerne County school district websites in November found almost no districts had posted the reports, which had to be filed with the state by Oct. 15. After The Times Leader requested copies of the reports, they started appearing on some local websites.
All districts supplied copies of their reports.
Pennsylvania NewsMedia Association Director of Legal Affairs Paula Knudsen said districts should want the information to be out there, to show people that sports programs are not being shortchanged.
“I was surprised to see how many field hockey programs have significant dollars behind them,” Knudsen said. “I think it’s important for the public to get a full picture of it all.”
Women’s Law Project Senior Staff Attorney Sue Frietsche said compiling and posting the data annually could make things easier for districts. Until now, if someone wanted the data, they had to file a Right-To- Know request, “which is much more burdensome than this once-a-year reporting.
“Public schools should not be that way,” Frietsche said. “You shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to find out how your school is managing its athletic programs.
Knudsen said districts may need to get used to the notion of detailed reports on line. Another law has been proposed: HB 1411, which would require extensive reports on school income and spending, all to be compiled into a searchable database on a separate state website called “SchoolWATCH.”
“People are proposing bills for more transparency,” Knudsen said. “The Oberlander bill seems to be rolling back access, and that doesn’t make sense.”