Important Question for NJ Gubernatorial Candidates: Will the Next Education Commissioner Support or Hinder NJSIAA?

Education Commissioner Must Get Litmus Test on How He or She Will Handle NJSIAA

It is an election year in New Jersey, and a very important one at that. With Governor Christie’s approval ratings dropping as a result of doing such things as lounging in a beach chair on Island Beach State Park during the July 4th Holiday Weekend government shutdown, and prevented many New Jersey residents from gaining access to that and many other beaches, and not able to run for a third consecutive term, significant change is about to take place.

Recently, two New Jersey gubernatorial debates took place between Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, and Republican candidate and current Lieutenant Governor, Kim Guadagno. Here’s is something that many in New Jersey should ask both of these candidates: What type of person would they appoint to be the State Commissioner of Education in New Jersey, and most importantly, how would they work in regards to the NJSIAA?

I say this because there are some very important issues facing the NJSIAA, which is the governing body for high school athletics in the Garden State. There have also been recent decisions made or attempted by the NJSIAA that has been undermined by the Education Commissioner. First was the overturn of the vote for the separation of public and non-public schools in football voted in . The second was the rejection of a February 8th resolution by the NJSIAA to prevent student athletes that transfer to participate in post-season tournaments.

While I have not always been in lock step with every decision made by the NJSIAA in my 17 years of covering high school basketball, and 11 years of covering high school football in the Greater Middlesex Conference, I sincerely believe that something needs to be done in regards with the transfer issue in New Jersey High Schools because it has gotten way out of control, and for a very long time now. Not only has it caused the chasm between the haves and have nots to become increasingly wider, but it also affects student athletes ability to fulfill their primary obligation of being a student first.

The term student athlete is a very important, and also overlooked one. Notice the positioning of the two words: Student Athlete. Student comes before athlete for a reason, and that is because a student must fulfill the requirements of the curriculum of the school district they attend before being able to participate in any extra curricular activity including sports. I say that because nowadays, I feel that many have the positioning of those two important words in high school sports in reverse, i.e. Athlete Student.

The transfer issue is one that has an impact far greater than many truly understand. Case in point, the NJSIAA’s changing of Power Points for high school football over the past two seasons. Why did this come about all of a sudden? Simple, because it was to placate the former Big North schools, particularly Paramus Catholic, which didn’t make the state playoffs in 2015 after going 3-6 against a schedule that not only included their traditional foes in the Big North’s United Division, but also included Pope John of Sparta, two teams from Maryland, IMG Academy of Bradenton, Florida, and Friendship Collegiate of Washington DC.

Paramus Catholic as well as Don Bosco, Bergen Catholic, St. Joseph’s Montvale, St. Peter’s Prep, and DePaul Catholic, now members of the North Jersey Super Conference, have gradually played more teams from out of state over the years not only because it helps get them more exposure by being on ESPN or FS1, which now televise high school games, but it was also to fill out their schedules since many of the public schools and some non-public schools in North Jersey were unwilling to play them. So, in order to help these schools avoid having to travel far out of state, and play non-public schools such as Delbarton, Pope John, Seton Hall Prep, and some public schools.

To convince teams such as Delbarton and Seton Hall Prep to take on these New Jersey High School Football Goliaths, the NJSIAA made changes to the power points system prior to the start of last season. This led to a lot of controversy that continues even today where teams such as Delbarton, which began the season at 0-6, and held off a Mater Dei squad that was the Non-Public Group 2 Champion a year ago, have more power points than St. Joseph’s of Metuchen, which recently won the GMC White for the third time in four years.

While it may be true that St. Joseph’s is better off playing in the GMC Red not only to gain more power points, but also make it more competitive against these elite schools from North Jersey in the Non-Public Group 4 playoffs, the idea that a team that was at one point 0-6 on the season having almost as many power points than another team that currently has a record of 8-0, is crazy, but the real story is that the transfer issue is the cause of this madness. Many of these big time programs are able to draw players from beyond their geographic boundaries, and in some cases have been able to attract players from as far away as Central Jersey.

As a result, talent is being drained from many of the public schools, big and small, and has set up great disparity in contests over the years. This problem is not only in football, but even more so in basketball, where the non-public and public schools play each other more often including the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions every March. Many know how dominant the non-public schools have been in both the boys and girls TOC over the years. The last time, a public school won the NJSIAA Tournament of Champions in boys basketball was in 2000 when Camden led by Dajuan Wagner and Arthur Barclay defeated Seton Hall Prep for the crown. The Panthers also defeated St. Patrick’s, now Patrick School in a dramatic semifinal at the Dunn Center in Elizabeth.

Some of that has also been seen here in the Greater Middlesex Conference. Since 2008, St. Joseph’s has been in the Boys GMCT Championship Game every year, and has won 7 of the last 10 GMCT titles including five in a row from 2010 to 2014. The only public school to win the Boys GMCT over the last 8 years has been Colonia in 2015. There is also the issue of Choice Schools, which some feel have been used as a means to create high school sports powerhouses. A number of these schools are in the Central Jersey area, and as a result have dramatically improved and enjoyed a great deal of success with sectional and state titles, and even have had players that live in districts in Middlesex County play at these schools.

So, what does this have to do with next week’s election of a new governor in the State of New Jersey? The answer is a lot. While there are obvious issues affecting this state such as high property taxes, which by the way mostly goes toward funding public school districts, corruption, the recent implementation of a 23 percent gas tax, cost of living in the state, and the intellectual drain of talent to other states in the country as a result, the next governor’s appointment of a new education commissioner is going to have a very important impact on the way the NJSIAA and its participating member schools are going to be able to handle the elephant in the room issue that is the transfer rule.

The appointment of a new education commissioner by the next governor in New Jersey should be treated much like the Presidential appointment of a cabinet member or a Justice or Chief Justice on the Supreme Court. It should not only be rigorously vetted by the next governor’s administration, but also strenuously evaluated by both houses of New Jersey’s State Legislature in Trenton. Part of that evaluation should include questions to the nominee asking him or her what are their thoughts on the actions taken by the Education Commissioner in regards to the NJSIAA votes in 2015 on the separation of non-public and public schools in football, and in 2017 on the issue of barring transfers from playing in state tournaments. How will they work with the NJSIAA in resolving this critical issue?

There is no doubt that athletics can serve a very important part in a young person’s life. For many, it provides discipline, teamwork, and competition, which can help mold these young people into successful leaders of tomorrow. In quite a few cases, sports provides youths and their families a way to escape the hardship of inner city life. However, we must all realize that athletics only represents a portion of a person’s life. It is a finite subset of life in total for an individual, but education encompasses life in its entirety. Being a successful athlete, or entertainer will not last forever. Even those, who have gone on to have long, successful careers in sports, still come to a point where they will need to figure out what to do with the rest of their lives, and that is where education is the most important.