SALT LAKE CITY — The Utah State Board of Education on Friday passed a fourth version of new rules governing the athletic eligibility of high school transfer students.
Currently, high school students who want to transfer from one school to another and take their athletic eligibility with them must provide proof of a hardship or a family move into the boundary of the new school.
If all parties support the latest proposed revision of the rules, transferring schools as an athlete — in certain situations — would be easier than under current UHSAA rules.
The Utah High School Activities Association will take the proposal to its board of trustees for approval, and then it would need a final OK from the State School Board’s Standards and Assessments Committee in December.
“I think every time we’ve met it’s gotten better,” said North Summit Superintendent Jerre Holmes, who represents Region 16 on the UHSAA board of trustees. “We’re still not in agreement that it should even be at this level — the decision. But since we’re here, I think there have been some good compromises.”
Under the changes approved by the board Friday, a student who has never played varsity sports would be able to transfer to another school and be eligible for athletics. For example, a student who attended Alta as a freshman and sophomore and played multiple sports — but never at the varsity level — could transfer to any other school for any reason and automatically be eligible to play sports.
That could exacerbate issues between rural and urban small schools, as some of those students may choose to go to 1A and 2A charter schools or smaller private schools, all of which compete against rural schools who’ve traditionally opposed liberal transfer rules because they feel it creates an unfair advantage.
“The difference with the charters having no boundaries, that’s going to create a great conundrum, as well as the private schools,” said board member Laura Belnap, who has participated in the group that’s worked on the issue for two months. “The more that they become involved, they may have to make different classifications.”
Board member Spencer Stokes, who also participated in that process and has been a proponent of the State School Board’s efforts to put some of the transfer policy in board rules, said he expects the UHSAA to define terms and make rules that govern the implementation of the ideas.
“They just can’t conflict with (board rules),” Stokes said.
Many coaches and administrators are sympathetic to student athletes who won’t make varsity rosters at big, traditionally successful 4A and 5A schools and want to transfer to smaller or less successful programs simply to have a varsity experience. That is an issue that the trustees could deal with through rules or the realignment process, which decides where schools are placed for competition.
The other scenario, which could be far more problematic, is that the section of automatic exemptions lists “full-family move” as something that can’t be prohibited by the UHSAA.
Right now a full-family move is an automatic exemption, but the family has to move from one school’s boundaries into the new school’s geographic boundaries. The new rule doesn’t specify where the family has to move, and moving from the original school’s boundary would allow students to transfer with eligibility to any school in the state.
One scenario discussed was moving from Salt Lake City School District to Alpine School District but enrolling in a Provo District school.
“A full-family move creates an opportunity to change schools,” Stokes added.
Kristen Betts, chairwoman of the UHSAA’s board of trustees, said the full-family move exemption as it is currently written “is a concern.”
The other automatic exemptions are death in the family, divorce and change of custody when those changes require a move, as well as a student being a victim of bullying.
Board member Joel Wright became so frustrated with the amount of time dedicated to the subject that he said he was tempted to make a motion to “end all playoffs at all levels” because it “creates this culture where we’re the hopeless feeder system" for sports.
"I’m sick of it," Wright said. "It’s distracting us from our mission.”
Board member Barbara Corry said she agreed — not with getting rid of sports, but doing away with the proposal.
“This is not about the students so why are we messing with it?" Corry asked. "It’s not the activities association’s fault here. … It’s our fault for getting involved and trying to verbalize what we have to have.”
UHSAA Executive Director Rob Cuff said the small work committee made up of school board members and UHSAA trustees plan to meet at least once more before it goes to the full board of trustees on Nov. 17. That feedback will go back to the State School Board for a final discussion, edit and vote.
“We definitely feel like this is the best we’ve had on the drawing board,” Cuff said, adding that the UHSAA felt it was important for committee members to be able to explain the trustees how they arrived at this draft, gather feedback and then bring back that information to the board in December.
“Every time it gets revised it’s better,” he said.