June 25, 2018
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Lee Academy boys basketball team is a lightning rod for public-private debate

By Ernie Clark, BDN Staff

It’s easy for an Eastern Maine sportswriter to bring out the passions of high school basketball fans these days — just discuss the Lee Academy boys basketball program.

The Pandas’ roster has evolved in recent years just as the independent school has evolved in the interest of its financial survival, with boarding students from near and far now accounting for a significant percentage of both the overall student body and key players on the team.

That influx of talent has helped the boys basketball program emerge from the shadow of a locally produced girls team that won three state championships and four Eastern Maine titles between 2004 and 2008.

While this year’s Lee girls team is 0-9, the boys are not only the reigning Class C state champions, but with several new key players the Pandas are 8-1 this winter and poised to challenge for another gold ball.

And if that’s not enough, this evolution of the boys team has coincided with the development of a postgraduate basketball program at the school, adding a recruiting conspiracy theory to the matter.

Some fans of rival schools argue their community-based teams should not have to compete against schools with a global base from which to draw students — particularly in Class C, where the towns are invariably getting smaller and high school teams generally evolve not from the need to attract students and their tuition dollars from afar, but from local youth programs where kids learn the sport from their first dribble.

Ask fans of the Sumner of East Sullivan basketball team, which had its best season in decades last winter only to fall to Lee in the Eastern C final, or the Pandas’ other 2011 tourney victims, and complaints of a less-than-equal playing field can be heard without straining the ears.

A glimpse at the current edition of High School Today, a magazine published by the National Federation of State High School Associations, indicates such issues are not confined to Maine.

The cover story, “Public vs. Private Schools — Leveling the Playing Field,” outlines various concerns, including the percentage of state championships won by private schools versus public schools, the recruiting of student-athletes, and where to classify private schools within a public-private school sports hierarchy.

Maine and 45 other states include private schools as members of their interscholastic associations, with only Maryland, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia and the District of Columbia having separate public and nonpublic entities.

For many associations, it’s partly a matter of their own financial well-being, as membership dues help subsidize the activities they sponsor.

But as more schools — both public and private — recruit students to help subsidize their academic offerings and as more dormitories are built to house the growing number of boarding students, organizations such as the Maine Principals’ Association are beginning to address this new school order.

According to the High School Today article, since 2009 eight of the 51 state interscholastic associations have adopted a multiplier formula for classification in which private schools multiply their student enrollments by a given number and are reclassified based on that revised total.

Some state associations have formed public/non-public committees to address issues of competitive balance, and there have been some more unique moves — such as the Texas Senate voting to allow private schools to join its interscholastic association in all sports except for football and basketball.

Maine has not yet adopted a multiplier formula or established a specific public/non-public panel, but conversations about the issues involved in this debate are ongoing as more and more school systems look beyond their immediate borders to boost enrollments, according to MPA executive director Dick Durost.

That change won’t happen overnight probably will not satisfy the basketball fans who cast a wary eye at Lee Academy, but the mere acknowledgement that challenges exist nationally is one step toward determining just what changes might be applicable locally.

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