BELLE — The trophy cases at Belle High School are crammed with reminders of past athletic glories. By any measure, the awards represent a sizable haul for a school with a shade more than 300 students.
But it’s the trophy the Tigers didn’t win, the 2006 boys’ soccer state title, that threatens to turn Missouri high school sports upside down.
The Missouri State High School Activities Association will learn today if a proposal to hold separate championships for public and private schools in every sport but football collects enough votes from its 578 members to pass.
Belle principal Tom Keller, a 30-year high school administrator, started the petition drive. Long concerned about the perceived imbalance, Keller’s ire was further fueled when his soccer team lost to a pair of private school powerhouses after advancing to the Class 1 semifinals last year.
Keller’s efforts at Belle, in Maries County 40 miles southeast of Jefferson City, have touched a particular nerve among the small high schools that dot rural Missouri.
Many of those schools have regularly complained about the inherent advantages private schools offer young athletes, from need-based scholarships and superior facilities to the ability to attract students from outside defined attendance zones.
“The non-public schools have opportunities we don’t,” Keller said.
Should the measure pass, public and private schools could still compete during the regular season, but Missouri would join a handful of states that offer competing championships.
In each of those states, though, private schools formed their own league, a prospect Missouri officials dread.
Opponents fear the measure’s passage could cause irrevocable harm to high school sports in the state. With fewer opponents to compete against, smaller schools in both the public and private leagues would likely find themselves moving up in classification, which is based on enrollment.
“This is a pretty scary deal,” said Stan Ochsner, dean of students at Helias High, a coed Catholic school of 900 students in Jefferson City. “If this passes, we are in a world of hurt.”
With the bulk of the 70 MSHSAA private schools in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas, the Crusaders’ travel costs would greatly increase, Ochsner said.
“The inconvenience would be huge, but the costs would be crippling,” he said.
Judging by statistics, the Belle soccer team’s experience was not unexpected. Private schools have won 24 of the past 25 state titles in boys soccer. Their dominance of girls soccer is only slightly less lopsided — 15 of the past 18 titles. No public school has won a boys tennis title in the past 10 years.
Yet once those sports are eliminated from the equation, the comparison is more favorable.
In wrestling, for example, private schools account for only two of the past 33 state champions. In softball, they’ve claimed only three of the past 40 state titles.
Overall, non-public high schools in Missouri, which account for 12.1 percent of MSHSAA membership, have won 34 percent of the state titles over the past decade.
The debate isn’t new.
A decade ago, MSHSAA members soundly rejected a proposal to offer separate leagues for public and private schools. In that vote, members considered each sport individually.
More recently, MSHSAA established a weighted multiplier that elevates private schools into higher classifications in an attempt to adjust for their perceived advantages.
The formula requires private schools to multiply their enrollment by 1.35 to determine their classification.
Keller said he doesn’t expect the measure to pass, pointing out that several of the 64 principals and superintendents who signed the petition have since changed their minds.
“I never at any point believed this has any chance of passage,” he said. “I still don’t.”
Instead, Keller and his allies want the initiative to spur internal changes at the nonprofit activities association.
Soon after the measure was offered, MSHSAA revived a dormant statewide task force of public and private school leaders to discuss possible alternatives.
Among the ideas considered:
- ban private school freshmen from varsity competition if they attended public school as eighth-graders, to offset concern about improper recruiting;
- toughen the penalties against schools that recruit or exert “undue influence” on students’ decisions;
- broaden participating in state tournaments by inviting eight quarterfinalists to championship events.
Like a long-married couple entering counseling, MSHSAA’s public and private schools agree they need to put aside their differences for the good of the relationship.
Now they just hope to get that chance.
“If people feel there’s an uneven playing field, we’ll do what we can to level the playing field,” said Scott Brown, athletic director at Christian Brothers College High School outside St. Louis. “While the situation isn’t perfect, this (change) isn’t going to serve anybody very well.”