By Joe Ragozzino and Daniel Jackovino
BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Fed up with being forced to play against non-public schools that have the advantage of drawing student-athletes from anywhere in the region, Bloomfield High School Athletic Director Steve Jenkins, in a Dec. 29 letter to Superintendent Sal Goncalves, asked the Board of Education to adopt a policy that, in conference play, BHS teams should not be required to play non-public schools. Jenkins said he hopes the board would show the same resolution for this change that it displayed against the inequities of mandated testing.
The letter said that 10 years ago he had proposed, to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, that public and non-public schools be divided into leagues for all sports. The association voted on his proposal and it was defeated by 10 votes.
Jenkins also made the content of his letter public at the BOE meeting, Tuesday, Jan. 26.
BOE member Shane Berger, in a telephone interview earlier this week, said that New Jersey Department of Education Commissioner David Hespe had recently vetoed NJSIAA proposals similar to what Jenkins had advocated at the BOE meeting. Berger said Jenkins’ proposal to the board was a response to Hespe’s veto.
“It’s none of his business,” Berger said of Hespe and his veto. “If Bloomfield has a chance to lead, it should. In Bloomfield, we’re working for the whole child.”
In December, the NJSIAA passed a proposal to separate non-public and public wrestling championships, and a proposal creating a non-public football conference, with conference play between non-public and public schools at the discretion of the schools. Hespe vetoed these proposals.
Hespe, in a letter to NJSIAA Executive Director Steven Timko, explained that the wrestling championship proposal did not clearly demonstrate a competitive disadvantage for public schools, or address how it maintains equal athletic opportunity for non-public schools.
Regarding the football proposal, Hespe said that while the NJSIAA rationale for creating a non-public school conference was “that many non-public schools have used their expansive attendance zones and fundraising ability to create elite programs that make them noncompetitive with virtually all public schools in their region,” the NJSIAA proposal did not ensure that other non-elite non-public football programs would be able to continue to compete against equally matched schools in their region.
Hespe also disagreed with the football proposal because it meant that schools had to mutually agree to play each other. He said this would prevent the NJSIAA from scheduling games. In his letter, Hespe directed the NJSIAA to conduct a study to address competitiveness in wrestling and football while ensuring equal athletic opportunity.
BOE President Dan Anderson said Jenkins wanted a BOE resolution to keep Bloomfield in the forefront of the issue.
“Personally, I think it would be a good thing to do,” Anderson said in a telephone interview. “A lot of athletic directors were for it, but it was overturned.”
Anderson said it was his understanding that any resolution would be non-binding.
“It would just be a statement,” he said. “It would be for all sports.”
But before the BOE considers a resolution, Anderson said there has to be a dialogue between the public and Jenkins.
“There will be an opportunity for parents to ask what are the ramifications of this,” Anderson said.
BHS competes in the Super Essex Conference, which is broken down into divisions based on caliber of play and/or enrollment size.
This conference features strong, non-public schools such as boys-only Seton Hall Prep, based in West Orange, and girls-only Mount Saint Dominic Academy, located in Caldwell.
BHS competes against these two schools. It is in the same division as Seton Hall Prep for football, wrestling and baseball, and plays against Mount Saint Dominic for softball.
Other non-public schools in the conference are Montclair Kimberley Academy, Newark Academy and Golda Och Academy, Montclair Immaculate Conception and Saint Vincent Academy.
Last fall, the BHS football team lost to SHP, 35-7.
Last spring, the BHS baseball team lost both meetings against SHP by scores of 10-1 and 13-0, while the softball team lost to MSDA both times by scores of 3-0 and 3-1.
Jenkins said he sent his letter to Goncalves during the Christmas break. According to Jenkins, Goncalves shared the letter with the BOE and later discussed the issue with him in person. Goncalves then gave him the opportunity to speak at the meeting.
In a telephone interview, Jenkins said the board “was very receptive and very polite. They had some pertinent questions.”
He emphasized that BHS would be amenable to competing against non-publics but should not be required to play them in league competition.
“We can play them independently, if we choose to,” he said. “We just wouldn’t be mandated to play them on a league schedule. We’re not looking to boycott ever playing them. We’re just looking to do it on a league basis.”
He said Bloomfield will fulfill its commitment to the spring schedules.
If a policy were to be adopted by June, Jenkins said he would have the chance to present it to the SEC prior to the 2016-2017 schedules being finalized.
Jenkins said the SEC would determine how to figure out Bloomfield’s divisional record and how to determine divisional champions, if a policy is adopted.
But Bloomfield will still compete in county tournaments, which can involve all schools.
“We would still play them and we would play whoever we were matched up against,” Jenkins said.
Goncalves expressed his support of Jenkins’ proposal.
“It is inherently unfair that the non-public schools recruit students from all areas,” Goncalves said in an email to The Independent Press. “Public schools are limited to students who live within their geographical borders. Non-public recruiting has an impact on students who may never see playing time due to the large number of students recruited. Had those same students played for their hometown high school, they had the possibility of having a positive effect on their hometown’s athletic program.”