The New Jersey State Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe has rejected two votes that would have significantly changed academic sports for the state by separating public and non-public schools in football and for state wrestling tournaments.
In a 215-128 vote earlier this month, member schools decided to relegate nonpublic schools and create a separate conference for football beginning 2016, while interleague play against public schools would take place at the discretion of each school. An additional 216-121 vote would allow for a restructuring of the wrestling tournament in the state beginning in 2016. Two nonpublic school districts and one nonpublic school region would be formed to compete separately from the 28 public school districts and 7 public school regions.
Hespe's approval was needed for the votes, which he did not give. As a result, the current postseason structure of the NJSIAA Individual Wrestling Championships and the current regular-season structure of football across the state will remain.
In a memo to the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, Hespe said he decided to overturn the votes because the wrestling change did not address how equal athletic opportunities would be maintained for nonpublic school students, and how it would be implemented so that it would not be considered disadvantageous to those students.
Hespe went on to say that the football decision came because it would have taken away the ability of the NJSIAA to create full schedules for non-elite nonpublic schools that would be considered equal to public schools within the same region.
He also cited a 2009 decision from a former commissioner of education that reversed an NJSIAA decision to separate public and nonpublic schools in qualifying for the state wrestling tournament.
As a result of the decision, the New Jersey Interscholastic Athletic Association and school officials now need to find a solution for one of the longest-running issues in high school sports in New Jersey concerning a competitive imbalance between public and non-public school teams.
"I'm disappointed," said River Dell Athletic Director Denis Nelson, a strong proponent of the separation proposal in football. "The strategic and competitive advantage non-public schools have is going to continue. I don't think it's fair. I don't think it's right. But it is in existence."
Meanwhile, Nutley High athletic director Joe Piro, who is also a member of the special public/non-public committee that created the football proposal, said the decision made by Hespe was "disingenuous." Piro went on to say that Hespe was not listening to the public or looking at the facts, and that his decision would put student athletes in harm's way.
Hespe said that it is clear that there is a problem, suggesting the NJSIAA conduct a study on the issue as soon as time would allow, focusing on how best to address the concerns pertaining to competition in wrestling and football, while also considering implementation of proposed initiatives and ensuring that athletic opportunities such as transportation and instructional time are kept equal.