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IHSA faces a full-court press

SPRINGFIELD — In what could be the first of three hearings of its kind, Illinois High School Association Executive Director Marty Hickman sat in front of panel of state lawmakers on Tuesday, asked to defend his organization’s practices.

With questions ranging from how much money IHSA administrators make to whether the IHSA’s Board of Directors is racially diverse enough, Tuesday’s hearing in Springfield appears to be just the start of conversations between lawmakers and the state’s high school sports governing body.

State Rep. Linda Chapa La Via, D-Aurora, said she would like to see at least two more hearings take place – with one likely in Chicago and the other downstate. While Hickman told committee members he was always happy to meet with the House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee that Chapa La Via chairs, he questioned whether Tuesday’s hearing was entirely necessary.

“I think this could have been done with a simple phone call,” Hickman told the panel.

At the center of Tuesday’s hearing was the issue of the level of transparency the IHSA has shown while managing high school sports for more than 800 schools statewide. Because of its not-for-profit status, the IHSA – which operated last year on a budget of almost $11 million – is not required to divulge where its money comes from or how it is spent beyond the tax form 990.

Chapa La Via has called into question some of the exclusive contracts the IHSA has with vendors and other suppliers, including one for exclusive broadcast rights for state tournament games.

Hickman has said in the past he believes the IHSA is transparent enough, putting links to yearly audits and annual reports on its website. But Don Craven, an attorney who represents the Illinois Press Association and Illinois Broadcaster’s Association, said Tuesday that because the IHSA oversees sports and other activities being operated at public schools and receives money from IHSA-sponsored tournaments, it owes the public more information.

Hickman disagrees, saying during the hearing that the IHSA does not receive any direct funding from the state. That in itself, Craven argues, doesn’t matter.

Both the IPA and IBA have been supporters of Chapa La Via’s House Resolution 895, which led to a 55-51 vote among state representatives in April, approving legislative hearings. Republican lawmakers have argued that legislators should be spending time on more important educational issues and have referred to questioning the IHSA’s practices as a waste of lawmakers’ time.

Among them was State Rep. Barbara Wheeler, R-Crystal Lake, who said she struggles to comprehend what Chapa La Via’s end game is. While the athletic directors and school officials agree that the IHSA isn’t perfect in how it operates, questioning Hickman and his fellow administrators in a legislative hearing isn’t necessary.

As she looked around the room that included two representatives from the Illinois State Board of Education who Wheeler characterized as “clearly uncomfortable” because of the suggestion ISBE would perhaps be asked to take over the IHSA’s duties if lawmakers deemed it necessary, she continued to question the hearing’s merits.

“As it was kept unraveling, I wondered, ‘Why are we here, why are we wasting our time”,” Wheeler said in a phone interview Tuesday night. “Why are we putting this private, not-for-profit that schools choose to participate in when they’ve got a choice (not to) through this?”

On Tuesday, IHSA supporters continued to paint the organization as one that does right by Illinois high school students and athletes while also running with a balanced budget and funding its own pension. In Tuesday’s hearing, Hickman reiterated that the IHSA turned $2.7 million back to schools while the six or seven revenue sports the IHSA oversees pays for the nearly two dozen non-revenue sports – like bowling and bass fishing – that the IHSA offers as a way of providing opportunities for more students.

At least one member of the panel – State Rep. John Cavaletto, R-Salem – was impressed with the way the IHSA conducts its business.

“You spend less than you take in,” Cavaletto said to Hickman during the hearing. “I wish we could do that here.”

Hickman also took issue with a Chicago Sun-Times report over a weekend that stated IHSA officials received a 21-percent pay increase between the 2011-12 school year and the 2012-13 school year. Hickman, who called the report “100 percent wrong”, told the panel that the IHSA doesn’t have to apologize for what officials in his office make.

The report, however, came directly from Line 15 (salaries, other compensation, employee benefits) of the organizations’ 2013 tax form 990, which states that the organization paid out $2,541,323 in 2011-12 and then $3,076,721 in 2012-13.

Where the process goes from here is unknown. Even with the ground that was covered, including discussions of possibly moving the IHSA’s premier event – the boys basketball state tournament – to Chicago, Craven said there is plenty more to discuss.

“I think it’s the beginning of a process,” he said. “There are probably some issues that haven’t been addressed.”

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