Legislator questioning basketball transfers

Comm Tech's Samir Doughty. (Steven M. Falk/Staff Photographer)

The high rate of transfer students on boys' basketball teams at Philadelphia charter high schools is a major concern, a local state legislator says.

State Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks) said the PIAA Legislative Oversight Committee, which he chairs, is trying to determine if charter schools are bypassing or manipulating waiting lists to admit students for athletic reasons.

PIAA executive director Robert Lombardi said some of his member schools have complained about the ability of charter schools to "reload" each season with transfer players. PIAA rules prohibit recruiting and bar students from attending a school for athletic reasons.

Those complaints drove Lombardi last week to Harrisburg, where he proposed legislation to DiGirolamo's committee. If passed, the legislation would force charter-school students to play for their neighborhood public school, not the charter school.

Eight of the nine top scorers among the top three Public League charter basketball teams this past season transferred in before or shortly after the school year began. Half of the eight came from private schools outside Philadelphia. The other half came from non-charter city public schools.

Math, Civics and Sciences athletic director Lonnie Diggs said Friday that his boys' basketball program had lost more players than it had gained because of transfers over the last few years. The Mighty Elephants, consistently one of the area's top teams, took in seven transfers over the last two seasons.

Two MC&S players who transferred before this past season went to eventual Public League champion Martin Luther King. Another two went to Maritime Academy Charter. Diggs said that his school approved all the transfers and that he believed they were not for athletic reasons.

Philadelphia Electrical's top five players this season were transfers. Math, Civics and Sciences played with four transfers, three of whom finished as the team's top scorers. Imhotep Charter's top scorer transferred to the school a month into the school year.

DiGirolamo said there is "no reason to even think about introducing legislation as of yet." He suggested that representatives from the PIAA and charter schools meet soon and attempt to work out any differences.

Lombardi visited Philadelphia on Wednesday and met with District 12 athletic directors. He called the meeting positive and said they are planning to meet again in May.

"If they want to transfer, that's OK," DiGirolamo said of student-athletes. "But if you have a waiting list to get into the 10th grade and here you have a really good basketball player that wants to transfer, are you circumventing that waiting list for other kids and letting that really good athlete jump over everybody?"

District 12 executive director Robert Coleman, who oversees both the Public and Catholic Leagues, said he would reach out to the school district's Charter Schools Office. He said he would seek more of their involvement to monitor waiting lists.

He said the lists might vary depending on grade level. So, the wait might not be as long for a junior as it would be for a freshman.

Jeffrey Taylor, Philadelphia Electrical principal, said the district caps his school at 600 students. The school holds a lottery each April to fill the incoming freshman class. It randomly selects roughly 150 students from a field of 1,000 applicants, he said.

Waiting lists for transfers are much smaller. Taylor estimated the list to be about 25 students per grade. Taylor said the length of that list, combined with annual turnover, leaves no reason for anyone to bend rules.

Philadelphia Electrical won 16 games two seasons ago, but lost seven seniors. This season, after five players transferred from other schools, the Chargers won a school-record 19 games and reached the state semifinals.

Boys' basketball coach James Lewis declined comment. Messages for athletic director Chris Clayton were not returned.

Taylor said Philadelphia Electrical obtains forms that verify a student did not transfer for athletic reasons. The waivers are signed by the student and the principals of both schools involved in the transfer.

Math, Civics and Sciences, which has students in kindergarten through 12th grade, holds a lottery if the waiting list exceeds the number of open spots. Diggs, also dean of students, said the wait at the high school level is much shorter than in the lower grades.

Boys' basketball coach Dan Jackson said his school is a safe haven for children, while some traditional public schools have trouble with safety. Diggs said other students are drawn to the specialty subjects offered by charter schools.

Does the basketball program recruit?

"Not at all," Diggs said.