New Jersey proposal: Allow multiple schools to join forces, combine teams

Shawnee and Lenape players shake hands after their annual Thanksgiving day game. Under pending legislation, they could be on the same team.

Imagine a high school football team with players from Shawnee, Cherokee, Lenape, and Seneca.

Or a high school basketball team with players from Camden and Woodrow Wilson.

Or a wrestling team with athletes from Highland, Triton, and Timber Creek.

Under pending state legislation, school districts with multiple high schools will be allowed to form teams in every varsity sport filled with athletes from every school in the district.

If the legislation is put up for a vote, “it will pass by a wide margin,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, (D., Gloucester), who chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

The companion bills, sponsored by Assemblyman Daniel Benson (D.,Mercer) and Sen. Shirley Turner (D., Mercer), would permit schools in the same district to enter into a cooperative program in any sport as a means to maintain athletic teams in the event of declining participation, budget constraints, or safety concerns.

Burzichelli said Thursday that the bills were likely to be voted upon Monday, unless there were floor amendments that were recently added that could delay the process.

Larry White, executive director of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, has mounted an aggressive campaign against the legislation. White issued a letter to member schools Thursday expressing an “uneasiness about politicians playing ‘ball’ with interscholastic sports.”

White noted that the legislation could limit opportunities for athletes while also creating the possibility of all-star-like teams that would represent both a competitive disadvantage and a safety risk for opponents.

“The [legislation] would grant 20 multi-school districts unilateral, unchecked super powers over 415 other schools and hundreds of thousands of children,” White wrote.

Cape-Atlantic League president Steve Fortis, the athletic director at Absegami, also issued a statement to local lawmakers Thursday, urging them to oppose the bills, which are designated A5254 and S3447.

Absegami is part of a school district that includes Oakcrest and Cedar Creek high schools.

“These bills represent a fundamental change in the organization of interscholastic sports in New Jersey and would seriously hinder schools in Southern New Jersey,” Fortis wrote. “The member schools of the CAL oppose this movement to create ‘powerhouse’ programs by allowing schools to combine teams.

“Under this legislation, schools would be permitted to drop programs and limit playing opportunities, and the legislation would actually replace a level playing field with competitive imbalance and superpower teams that single school districts would not be able to compete with.

“Imagine the Black Horse Pike Regional, Cherry Hill schools, Toms River schools, Lenape schools and Greater Egg Harbor schools being allowed to merge football or basketball or wrestling teams into a ‘district team’?

“What would this do to schools like Lower Cape May, Paulsboro, Pinelands and Vineland? How many pupils would be displaced with these combined teams?”

Currently, districts are allowed, with approval from the NJSIAA executive committee, to form cooperative arrangements in all sports except basketball, baseball, softball, and outdoor track.

The legislation sprung from concerns expressed by the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District, which appealed to the NJSIAA in the spring to allow West Windsor-Plainsboro North and West Windsor-Plainsboro South to form a cooperative team for football in 2017 because of declining participation and competitive struggles with both teams.

The NJSIAA’s executive committee denied the appeal, citing organization rules that prohibited larger schools from forming cooperative programs in sports such as football.

In December, the NJSIAA general membership approved a proposal introduced by West Windsor-Plainsboro that would allow larger schools to form cooperative programs in football. The North and South teams are expected to field a combined team in 2018, according to West Jersey Football League president Bud Kowal, the athletic director at Ewing.

There’s no indication that local school districts would form the cooperative teams. In fact, when the NJSIAA passed the December proposal to allow for larger schools to form cooperative teams in football, Cherry Hill athletic director Mike Beirao was adamant that East and West would continue to field their own squads.

The concern among NJSIAA officials and others opposed to the legislation is that school boards might see cooperative programs as an opportunity for significant savings with drastic reductions in salary, equipment, and travel costs.

There’s also the competitive aspect: Some districts might see the opportunity to create powerful teams that would have a much better chance of capturing conference, sectional, and state championships.

Burzichelli, the former mayor of Paulsboro and a frequent critic of the NJSIAA, said the pending legislation was created in response to the NJSIAA’s failure to adequately address the West Windsor-Plainsboro football situation in timely fashion.

“They kept saying it was a conference issue,” Burzichelli said of the NJSIAA. “They needed to deal with this. It should never have come to us. These guys like to be the king of everything except when things are not comfortable, then they don’t want to deal with anything.”

Twenty school districts in New Jersey have multiple high schools, including Camden (Camden and Woodrow Wilson); Cherry Hill (East and West); the Lenape district (Lenape, Cherokee, Shawnee, and Seneca); the Black Horse Pike district (Highland, Triton, and Timber Creek); and the Greater Egg Harbor district (Absegami, Oakcrest, and Cedar Creek).

The largest in the state is the Newark district, with 12 high schools.

“The concern I’m hearing up north is that Newark will put schools together and create a football team,” Burzichelli said. “If they do, they can go play Bergen Catholic. That will be an equal game.”