“This is a theater of the absurd,” Brad Lyman, head of Kentucky Country Day, a Louisville private school, said last month as he watched two days of task force meetings unravel without any compromise.
For years, Kentucky public and private schools alike have faced off in postseason tournaments. But after last year's dominance by the private schools, the public schools garnered enough votes to split the playoffs. That move was resisted by the governing body for high school athletics, aware private schools generate substantial revenue despite their limited numbers.
Kentucky's Board of Education kicked the issue back to the schools. The schools gave it to a task force. The task force hired former state Supreme Court Justice James Keller as moderator. But so far, nothing has been resolved.
“We can't let this fester forever,” board member David Tachau said this month before state officials sent the matter back to the drawing board - and more task force meetings.
Every proposal floated was perceived as compromising one type of school to boost another. It may just be amateur sports, but in Kentucky, this borders on civil war.
“Let the oranges get together and compete for their state championship and let the apples get together and compete for theirs,” said Mark Swift, athletic director at Paul G. Blazer High School in Ashland.
Often cited is the case of O.J. Mayo, arguably one of the most touted high school basketball players since LeBron James. Mayo currently plays high school ball in Cincinnati, where he lives, but from sixth through eighth grades, he was flashing his talents on a court in Ashland, Ky., because Kentucky's rules let athletes play up.
With its middle school star, Rose Hill High School, which has an enrollment of barely 70, advanced to the Sweet 16 basketball championship - an annual spectacle that is one of few such tournaments in the nation pitting high schools of all types and sizes against each other for one true state title.
Public schools now seem less inclined to go the separation route, but it was a sentiment that picked up steam in December when private Roman Catholic schools captured the football titles in three of the state's four divisions.
Louisville Trinity was crowned champion in Class 4A, the largest division, beating rival Louisville St. Xavier for the title in one of the state's most talked-about games. Those schools, after all, are the big draws around town.
While parents and alumni may complain, many coaches, players and boosters insist the powerhouse schools should stay on the schedule and be featured in the tournament.
Mike Bewey, working a concession stand last month at DuPont Manual public school in Louisville, said sales at a typical junior varsity game would only be a couple hundred dollars. When Trinity or St. Xavier visit, receipts can top $6,000.
“Revenue-wise it would be very difficult to give up that money,” Bewey said.
In the event of a split, there's a legitimate chance that money would disappear.
Rather than participate in new tournaments under the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, the larger private schools might form their own. That means Trinity and St. Xavier would still meet in their annual game, but the public schools wouldn't share in the proceeds.
Andy Listerman, acting athletic director at Lexington Catholic, says his school's recent success has made it next to impossible to schedule public schools from the area. He calls it an unwritten “boycott.”
“You never heard this 10 or 15 years ago when private schools weren't winning everything,” Listerman said.
Kentucky isn't the first state to go through this. Neighboring Tennessee got the same complaints from public schools in 1997 when it voted to split its high school tournaments into two divisions. Under the Tennessee plan, a private school has the option of remaining in Division 1 - the category set aside for public schools - provided its athletes don't receive any financial aid, even need-based. The others go to Division 2.
“They've made the adjustment and are pretty well satisfied,” said Bernard Childress, assistant executive director for the Tennessee Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
Bruce Howard, spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, says several states - including Georgia, Virginia and Texas - have a separate governing body for public and private schools and therefore separate tournaments.
Only New Jersey has completely separate tournaments under the same association, Howard said, but there a tournament of champions determines an ultimate victor after the other tournaments have ended.
Howard says his organization, which facilitates activities in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., isn't trying to influence how states set up their postseason, but he acknowledges some concern academic interests are getting trampled.
“Certainly from our perspective, when you start getting so engrossed in athletic prominence and excellence and not focused on academics first, that's not a good thing,” Howard said.
One proposal floated in Kentucky would create a “feeder” system, aligning certain private middle schools with private high schools. Barring a physical move by a student athlete's family, students would have to declare by sixth grade which feeder system they want to join or risk being deemed ineligible to play sports for a year or more once they reach high school.
But some parents complain only a small handful of elite athletes eyeing a major college or professional sports track will be able to make that decision so early. Most students attend private school for another reason - religion, activities, a reputation for a certain academic subject - and simply want to play sports for recreation at a school that will let them start.
“We're not seeing the forest through the trees,” Board of Education member Dorie Combs said. “It's not about winning tournaments. It's about playing.”
Although private school officials insist they're following state law and not recruiting students solely based on their athletic ability, they don't deny recruiting for other reasons. After all, getting students to attend is their business - and separate tournaments would be bad for it.
“I've got to recruit people to my school,” Lyman said. “I've got to pay all the bills. I don't get any government money, but I'd have to say, ‘Here is my sports program. Once the season is over, it's over, and there's no chance to compete for that golden ring.'”