The Republican-sponsored legislative bill that threatens the existence of the N.C. High School Athletic Association has resurfaced in the state Senate.
The latest edition of House Bill 91 was returned Thursday to the Senate Education/Higher Education committee after sitting in the Senate Rules and Operations committee since July 22.
Sen. Tom McInnis, R-Anson, and Senate majority whip, applied the gut-and-replacement strategy July 21 to HB91 to insert language creating the N.C. Interscholastic Athletic Commission that would be overseen by the State Board of Education.
McInnis was joined by Republican Sens. Todd Johnson of Union County and Vickie Sawyer of Yadkin County.
The bill passed Senate Education/Higher Education on July 21 and Senate Finance on July 22.
Senate Education/Higher Education is scheduled to meet at 11 a.m. Tuesday.
However, HB91 was not on the committee agenda as of Sunday.
What is on the agenda is House Bill 324, titled “Ensuring dignity & nondiscrimination/schools,” which is the North Carolina Republican-sponsored version of the controversial critical race theory legislation introduced in the mostly Republican-controlled legislature.
The goal for the current version of HB91 is to “restructure oversight of public high school interscholastic athletics to ensure accountability and fair play.”
The strategy would be to disband the 108-year-old NCHSAA and replacing it with the commission beginning in the 2022-23 school year.
There has been at least one known meeting between NCHSAA leadership and the Republican bill sponsors, held on July 28, to discuss HB91 and potential NCHSAA reform initiatives.
NCHSAA officials did not respond when asked Friday if there is any update on those negotiations.
Capital fund grants
The latest version of the bill does not include a third section that would “authorize use of needs-based public school capital fund grants for athletic facilities.”
It is the only significant changes to the revamped bill since July 21.
The capital fund grants, which could have been used to construct athletic facilities, were included to be an option for assisting primarily rural public schools. It would require a county funding commitment.
State law requires Commerce officials to annually rank the economic health of all 100 counties, with the 20 most prosperous counties as Tier 3, the next 40 counties as Tier 2 and the 40 most distressed counties as Tier 1.
For 2021, Watauga is the only Tier 3 county among the 14 in the Triad and Northwest N.C.
Tier 2 counties are Alamance, Alleghany, Ashe, Davidson, Davie, Forsyth, Guilford, Randolph, Stokes, Surry and Yadkin. The Tier 1 counties are Randolph, Rockingham and Wilkes.
The capital fund grants would have enabled a Tier 1 county to receive $3 in grant funds for every $1 in county funds with a $15 million limit on grant funds per county.
For Tier 2 counties, they would receive $1 in grant funds for every $1 in county funds with a $10 million limit on grant funds per county.
The grant funds would have been allowed for use on new school buildings and new school athletic facilities, but not for real property acquisitions.
“This amendment suggests to me that bill supporters think they might be able to round up enough yes votes if they take the grants out of the equation,” said Mitch Kokai, senior policy analyst with Libertarian think tank John Locke Foundation. “Helping smaller, poorer school districts is a top priority for the most vocal proponents of this change.
“But they seem willing to sacrifice that piece of their plan if the sacrifice helps the bill cross the goal line,” Kokai said.
The spark behind the revamped version of HB91 appears to have been a slow burn of nearly two years.
It stems from a 2019 football playoff eligibility appeal by an influential Republican senator from Anson County and the denial by the independent nonprofit group.
That dispute carried over into tense joint legislative oversight meetings in April and May prior to the gut-and-replace on HB91.
The commission’s 17 members would be appointed by the governor (nine), Senate leader (four) and House speaker (four). It would enforce rules and policies adopted by the State Board of Education.
The composition would include most of the same positions that make up the NCHSAA’s board: coaches who are full-time school employees; athletic directors; principals or assistant principals; and superintendents or assistant superintendents.
Bill sponsors are willing to have the NCHSAA remain in charge for 2021-22 school year under State Board of Education oversight.
However, the bill requires the NCHSAA to agree by Aug. 15 “to discontinue all financial penalties for rules violations for participating schools” — a key motivational factor for McInnis with the legislation.
If the NCHSAA declines to accept those conditions — and NCHSAA commissioner Que Tucker indicated it will — the State Board of Education would designate the State Department of Public Instruction to apply and enforce interscholastic rules for 2021-22 if the bill becomes law.
Johnson said during the Senate Education meeting that “this bill is solely about accountability and transparency.”
“It is what we demand in every single aspect of state government” even though the NCHSAA is not part of state government.
Tucker told the Greensboro News & Record in July that the sponsors of the revamped HB91 have “some friends in the Senate, and I do believe they will be able to use their power of persuasion to get it through the Senate.”
“They are feeling now is that they’ve invested so much that they have to go with it,” Tucker said. “I’m disappointed that at this time our politics have sunk to the level that we now believe it is OK to politicize education-based athletics at the high school level.”
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper has not taken a public position on HB91, but acknowledged it was likely the Senate could pass the bill.
“Interestingly enough, (bill) supporters want to take it out of the private sector and put it into government,” Cooper said on July 22. “We will examine the bill to see if it is really needed. I will be glad to talk to legislators about it.”