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Legislators accuse KHSAA of acting 'above the law' on athlete transfers

FRANKFORT — Lawmakers faced off with Kentucky High School Athletic Association officials Tuesday, saying the KHSAA had made decisions that were not good for Kentucky's children and had acted as if the agency is above the law.

The issue that riled several members of the Administrative Regulation Review Subcommittee was KHSAA's policy of penalizing or threatening to punish schools that follow a circuit judge's order against a KHSAA ruling.

"We must not lose sight of what's good for our young people," said committee chair Sen. Elizabeth Tori, R- Radcliff. "Some of these actions in the past have not been good."

Most of the rulings involve the KHSAA transfer rule, which says that a student athlete cannot compete for one year after changing schools, except under specific conditions. Currently, when a judge issues an order that reverses a KHSAA ruling, the association warns schools that they could face penalties if they follow the judge's ruling and it is ultimately overturned.

Several members of the legislative subcommittee — which approves KHSAA bylaws — told KHSAA officials Tuesday that they had to stop penalizing schools or warning them not to follow a judge's order.

Rep. Bob Damron, D-Nicholasville, held up a copy of the Kentucky Constitution and said the KHSAA policy violated it.

"To say that this one agency has unique power to overturn the judicial branch is wrong," Damron said.

Senate President Pro Tem Katie Stine, who had unsuccessfully tried to get rid of the KHSAA policy with a bill in the 2009 General Assembly, told the panel: "We are a nation of laws. No one is above the law."

KHSAA Commissioner Brigid DeVries told the panel that it is not the KHSAA's intention to appear above the law.

DeVries said that members of the KHSAA board of control know that the policy is controversial and are already reviewing it.

"It appears ... that our association says that we are more important than the court system, and we have no intention at all of giving that impression," said DeVries.

But Stine, R-Southgate, told the panel that even if the KHSAA didn't intend to be above the law, "actions speak louder than words. What I have seen in the past has certainly been arbitrary and capricious."

Under KHSAA bylaws, the agency may require a school to forfeit games, go on probation or pay a fine if it follows a court order that is later overturned.

On Tuesday, Stine took issue with one 2005 case. Despite court rulings that allowed transfer student Michael Mitchell to play football at Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, the KHSAA fined the school $1,500, forced it to forfeit 13 games, put it on three years' probation and suspended the coach for two practice games and the first two regular season games in the 2005 season.

The transfer rule and other KHSAA bylaws are an attempt to fight recruiting abuses by coaches and parents. But members of the legislative subcommittee have increasingly criticized the KHSAA for its policies and decisions that lawmakers say are unfair.

Damron introduced an amendment to KHSAA bylaws Tuesday that says school officials or students could not be punished or sanctioned for allowing a student to compete or practice as allowed by a court order.

KHSAA Assistant Commissioner Julian Tackett told the subcommittee 177 out of 230 schools that voted regarding the policy were in favor of it.

But Rep. Jimmie Lee, D-Elizabethtown, told KHSAA officials that the legislative subcommittee would not ever give approval to the controversial policy.

Kevin Brown, a lawyer for the state school board, said KHSAA officials did not have the authority to change the rule on Tuesday without the permission of the KHSAA governing body — the board of control — and the state school board, which oversees the KHSAA. Both organizations are convening within the next few days, and Brown said the issue would be taken up at those two meetings.

KHSAA officials will appear before the legislative subcommittee again in June.

As the meeting ended Tuesday, Tori left them with a final thought:

"I trust that you all will move in the right direction and do the right thing for the betterment of our youth who want to participate in sports."

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