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Indiana senator to push for statewide referendum on class basketball

Friday, July 13, 2012 - 4:19 pm

The fight over resuscitating Indiana's one-class high school basketball state tournament is not a dead issue for the state legislature and could be decided by Hoosiers at the voting booth as early as 2016.

Sen. Jean Leising said Tuesday that she will explore introducing legislation to create a statewide referendum on the current postseason class-system used in the annual IHSAA basketball tournament.

"Indiana has been known for years for its basketball heritage, and I think it's really lost its luster in these last years," Leising (R-Oldenburg) said. "You ask why that is and the only thing you can really point to is the single-class and multi-class tournament issue."

Since the 1997-98 school year, Indiana has held multiple state tournaments for boys and girls basketball with schools divided into four classes based on enrollment. Before this change, all Indiana high schools competed in a single-class state championship tournament.

The push for a referendum to return Indiana to the single-class system comes less than a week after the IHSAA announced it would not alter its postseason system. IHSAA commissioner Bobby Cox made this decision following a series town hall meetings and polling of school officials and student-athletes about class basketball.

Cox said he understands the General Assembly's right to pursue a state referendum. He also said, though, he would actively lobby against any legislation introduced in the upcoming 2013 session banning class basketball.

"If the Indiana legislature is going to disrespect our school administrators and student athletes and wants to do something based on what adults want for their own entertainment, then they need to do that," Cox said.

The IHSAA decision last week to keep class basketball capped off six months of discussion about the issue in the state legislature and in IHSAA-sponsored town hall meetings across the state.

During the 2012 legislative session, Leising was one two senators who in January to introduced bills that would have ended class basketball.

Senate Bill 84 sponsored by Leising did not move out the senate's public policy committee and did not reach the Senate floor for a vote. Sen. Mike Delph (R-Carmel) introduced an education bill that among the numerous reforms included returning to single-class basketball. The basketball part of Delph's bill was removed in committee before going to the floor for a vote.

However, the two bills resulted in Cox agreeing to hold 11 town hall meetings throughout Indiana this summer to discuss the issue.

The town halls had sporadic attendance ranging from about 75 people at the meetings in Milan and Plymouth to an attendance-low nine people for the final meeting in Gary. The Fort Wayne area town hall meeting at Northrop High School in April had 42 people in attendance.

Of the combined 514 people attending the 11 town hall meetings, straw polls conducted showed 68.09 percent favored a return to the single-class tournament.

In recent months the IHSAA also conducted surveys of school and athletic administrators, coaches and players. Each of these groups voted in favor of keeping the multiple-class system with more than 70 percent of student-athletes, school administrators and athletics directors voting for the current postseason structure.

Cox said these surveys proved there was no compelling evidence for Indiana to return to single-class basketball.

"My job as commissioner is to represent our membership. One state legislator asked us to do town hall meetings. We did that. We took a look at the public input from those meetings and the input from our members and it didn't match up with what [some legislators] wanted," Cox said. "We've been looked at like that we are not listening and don't care. That couldn't be further from the truth."

Leising said she was not surprised by the IHSAA's recent decision to keep class basketball because it's what the IHSAA school officials wanted to do from the start. However, the senator said the straw polls show that the public doesn't want class basketball.

"People in all the regional meetings supported single-class," Leising said. "We now know as legislators that the people we represent, the majority of them I believe would cast a vote in favor of single-class."

Along with the straw poll numbers, Leising said the declining attendance at IHSAA basketball tournament games is another indication that Hoosiers favored the signal-class system.

The combined attendance for the four boys' basketball state championship games earlier this year was less than 23,000 people -- almost 17,000 people fewer than attendance at the 1990 single-class state championship game, which set a national high school attendance record.

Postseason attendance, though, following that 1990 championship game was on the decline throughout the 1990s leading up to the class system being introduced in the 1997-98 school year.

The 1996 boys basketball sectional title games throughout the state had declining attendance compared to the previous year with a majority of games failing to drew more than 4,000 people. Among those games with lower attendance included two sectional games at the Memorial Coliseum that drew 2,541 people – a 21 percent decrease from the 1995 sectionals in Fort Wayne.

Leising said the opportunity for hosting communities to benefit economically from larger state tournament attendances is enough of a reason for the General Assembly to continue to pursue the class basketball issue.

"A few months after the tournaments now nobody can tell you who the multi-class winners were," she said. "It used to be you would know who had been the state basketball tournament winner. It's not like it was, and I don't know if it would ever be the same. I think it's worth looking at."

Despite the declining attendance, Cox said that attendance should not be a factor when determining a postseason model.

"These tournaments have never been designed by public viewing," he said. "It's what the membership and student-athletes want. Student-athletes are in favor of these tournaments and so is the public of Indiana. I'm disappointed in that senate resolution, but if the senate wants a referendum they can pursue that desire."

Lesing said she would discuss with the Senate Republican leadership and staff attorneys about the legality of making class basketball a statewide referendum. The three-term senator, who is currently running unopposed in her November re-election bid, also said she knows it would be a difficult battle to get the issue on the ballot.

"We are somewhat restrictive in Indiana when it comes to referendums," she said. "We see referendums only rarely."

For an issue to receive a statewide referendum in Indiana it usually has to be introduced in the General Assembly as an amendment to the state constitution. The proposed amendment must be passed by both the Indiana Senate and Indiana House of Representatives in two separate sessions before going to Hoosiers for a statewide vote.

The earliest class basketball as a constitutional amendment could appear on the Indiana ballot would be 2016.

Leising said she feels if the proposed referendum reached the Senate and House floors there would be enough support among legislators to pass the referendum and get it on the ballot.

The senator also said, though, she knows it will be difficult even with the referendum to help reignite Hoosiers' passion for high school basketball to the pre-class system level.

"Could we bring it back? I don't know. It's been gone long enough that I think it will be somewhat of challenge because a lot of students really don't have an idea of what that was like," Leising said. "I don't think the fight is over. There are a lot people interested in the issue.”