TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - The nearly century-old organization that oversees high school athletics in Florida may be entering its final years of eligibility.
The House approved a measure (HB 1279) on Wednesday, in a bi-partisan 89-26 vote, that gives student-athletes more flexibility as to where they play and requires the Florida High School Athletic Association to more closely follow the wishes of the Legislature or be replaced.
The Senate must still take up the measure, either taking up the House bill on the floor or take up a nearly similar proposal (SB 1164) offered by Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.
Backers of the changes say the overhaul is needed as the FHSAA has used its authority in an arbitrary manner that has overreached when investigating student eligibility and claim the measure could help prevent some students from dropping out by expanding athletic opportunities.
"One hundred years of being an organization doesn't make you right, it does make you powerful," said Rep. Elizabeth Porter, R-Lake City.
Opponents contend the matter is a "playground fight" that has been elevated to the Capitol chambers by Lakeland-area lawmakers due to fines imposed against Lakeland High School after students were ruled ineligible to play for infractions ranging from falsifying addresses to receiving impermissible benefits that included free rent.
The opponents say the legislation will also invite frequent transfers, and force administrators and teachers to continually readjust academic plans for students who jump campus to campus.
"This is an awful, awful bill," said Rep. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach. "It's important we have a good athletic association. To turn it upside down and make it a free agency is something that is disgusting."
The measure places new restrictions on investigations by the FHSAA, expands the ability for students to transfer schools during the school year, alters the makeup of the board of directors, would give school districts more say over athletic regulations in each county, and sets a 2017 date to sunset the 93-year-old organization.
The overhaul gives charter and home school students more opportunities to play for public and private school teams, gives students the right to try out at schools for a sport that is not offered by their own school, and expands representation on the FHSAA board to charter school, home school and non-public school members and the Florida Athletic Coaches Association.
"We're not messing with anything that we're not already messing with currently in law," Stargel said. "We already set up who the board is. We have the authority to set up who the board is. We already have the ability to dictate bylaws. We're not changing that now."
The bill also requires the Legislature to replace the FHSAA by July 2017. If no replacement is found, the commissioner of education could extend the deadline by four years.
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