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High school league rules on transfer student eligibility need clarity

By Nick Longworth
Valerie Bombach, program evaluator with the Office of the Legislative Auditor, answers a question during testimony before the House Education Innovation Committee April 4, regarding the OLA’s evaluation of the Minnesota State High School League. Photo by Paul Battaglia

In an effort to keep high school student-athletes from transferring schools to create unfair competition, the Minnesota State High School League has rules regarding the athletic eligibility of transfer students.

But according to a program evaluation by the Office of the Legislative Auditor, the process for informing families of eligibility determinations has become overly complex, and the lack of transparency or board oversight has some crying foul.

“For the vast majority the process works well. But for those it doesn’t, it has a very big impact,” Deputy Legislative Auditor Judy Randall told the House Education Innovation Policy Committee Tuesday.

“I’ve gotten calls from various people around the state,” Rep. Bob Dettmer (R-Forest Lake) said. “This is something that’s been in the making for several years.”

The report found the league’s rulemaking process regarding student eligibility lacks clarity for families, oftentimes with rules, bylaws, policies and procedures — all of which are exempt from the Administrative Procedure Act — being open for interpretation and overlapping in purpose. It also found the process for a family to transfer eligibility was overly complex and archaic, resulting in inconsistent eligibility determinations, long delays and frustrated families.

“We could not conclude whether or not the league had a defined criteria in accordance with its own rules and regulations. Some procedures are poorly worded or unclear,” said Valerie Bombach, program evaluator with the OLA. “Most of our concerns relate to the process used by the board to create eligibility rules. We think the league does not have sufficient criteria to address some types of transfers. There’s no single path to get a clear understanding of how to transfer, in what ways you would be eligible, and what are the penalties.”

Randall noted that some student transfers aren’t athletically motivated, but students can be penalized regardless of individual circumstances under blanketed rules, an example being a student whose parents never married, but remains ineligible without a court order defining custody arrangements. Such delays can force a student to miss the entire season they were applying for in the first place.

“Sometimes athletics are the reasons kids stay in school, or are happy,” Randall said. “It’s really hard for families who have a big impact from these decisions.”

The report suggests the Legislature require the high school league to establish a fair hearing process and follow key rulemaking standards similar to state agencies; the Department of Education monitor appealed transfer eligibility cases, maintain a list of independent hearing officers and review eligibility bylaws and procedures for compliance; and the MSHSL improve online transfer forms, clarify website content and increase oversight of eligibility determinations.

“We think MDE can do a better job with the oversight it provides,” Randall said.

“We all want what’s best for kids. We want a good oversight with how we serve and protect those kids. We want fair opportunities,” said Deb Pauley, a MSHSL board member and treasurer. “The league has a set of bylaws and policies in place. We support the current transfer rules, but acknowledge there is room for growth and improvement.”


Managing Minnesota sports

The MSHSL is a nonprofit organization established in 1973 by the Legislature to act as the statewide league governing high school athletics. Its responsibilities include establishing uniform and equitable rules while organizing and administering high school sports across the state, including competitions such as the state hockey tournament.

High schools are voluntary members, with 630 schools offering up to 26 different athletics and fine arts activities.

In 2016, the MSHSL oversaw the eligibility of 2,400 student transfers, of which 132 were appealed to the league office.

Currently, the process for a student to regain athletic eligibility after transferring school districts requires a family to report a student’s status to the league. If denied, a family can appeal the ineligibility, and request a fair hearing which is not required by law and may be denied at the discretion of the board. A board of directors makes the final decision.

Despite the outlined concerns in the report, 75 percent of member schools surveyed found that the league makes the right decisions and offers fair and adequate due process.

“We have a high school league that is highly regarded throughout the state,” Pauley said. “We are recognized across the country for the work we do with kids, and how we do business.”

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