An overhaul of the classification system that governs Idaho’s high school sports took a step forward last week.
The proposal would ditch the current way schools are divided — solely by their student enrollment — in favor of a system that takes into account the socio-economic status and competitive history at each school.
Idaho High School Activities Association Executive Director Ty Jones said the board passed the measure 10-3 on June 14 at the board of directors meeting in order to study it further. All measures must pass the board twice. The next meeting is Aug. 2, when the board can finalize the proposal and allow it to take effect starting in the 2018-19 school year.
If the board rejects it, the current system would remain in place.
“What our board said was, ‘We’re not quite ready to buy into it wholeheartedly, but we need to pass this forward so we can continue to talk about it,’” Jones said. “Because they’re interested in it.”
The proposal, brought by Caldwell High Athletic Director Josh Hegstad, mirrors the way Oregon divides its schools. Instead of using just the raw enrollment number, schools deduct 25 percent of their students who get free or reduced lunch.
For example, if a school has 1,000 students and 50 percent (500) get free or reduced lunch, it could deduct 125 students from 1,000 for an adjusted enrollment of 875.
Hegstad said schools with high free or reduced lunch numbers face obstacles other schools don’t, such as higher dropout rates, fewer athletes, more special education students, and reduced opportunities for offseason camps and training. He said those obstacles make it unrealistic to expect schools like Caldwell to compete with schools like Eagle.
Caldwell has the highest free or reduced lunch rate, 63 percent, in the state among 5A and 4A schools. Eagle has the lowest, at 11 percent.
“If it’s truly all about kids — and everyone in the state would say that it is, and I think they believe it — it’s not in the best interest of a kid to go get beat by 70 points every week,” Hegstad said. “This system is not about dropping a level and hanging a banner in the gym. It’s to allow teams to compete week in and week out.”
Hegstad’s proposal also would reset the enrollment limits for each classification. It would start with the raw enrollment of the state’s largest school — this cycle it’s Rocky Mountain at 2,377 — and cut it in half to determine the minimum number of students for 5A. This would ensure no school plays an opponent with twice as many students.
The rest of the classifications would follow the same model every two years, with 4A including schools with an enrollment from 1,188 to 595 students; 3A from 594 to 298 students; 2A from 297 to 149 students; 1A Division I from 148 to 75 students; and 1A Division II with 74 or fewer students.
Schools would fit into classifications based on their adjusted free or reduced lunch enrollment.
The proposal also lays out criteria for schools to petition to drop down a classification based on their success on the field.
Hegstad said the power to approve petitions would remain with the IHSAA board and the state’s superintendents, who approve any school moving into their classification with a majority vote. The new system would give superintendents data illustrating the struggles of a school petitioning to move.
A strong case to drop down would meet one or both of these criteria: 75 percent of the school’s team sports (football, basketball, baseball, etc.) finishing with a winning percentage at or below 33 percent the previous two years; or finishing in the bottom 20 percent of district meets 75 percent of the time for individual sports (cross country, wrestling, track, etc.).
Right now, Nampa would meet the team criteria. Only one of its 14 team sports finished above .333 the past two years (boys basketball in 2015-16, .409). Nampa would not meet the individual sports guidelines because 10 of 18 (55 percent) of those sports finished in the bottom 20 percent at district meets.
“It still keeps all the power in the hands of the superintendents and the board of trustees,” Hegstad said. “But they can look at a piece of paper and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t realize they were struggling that bad. They should be playing down.’”
Oregon utilizes a similar system that ranks every team in the state.
2008-09 The last time the IHSAA made a major change to its classification system, when it split the 1A classification into 1A Division I and 1A Division II for basketball and volleyball. It previously split the 8-man football classification in two in 2004-05.
2000-01 The creation of the 4A classification in every IHSAA-sanctioned sport. Idaho previously had a 4A classification for football only dating back to 1984.
Free or reduced lunch numbers are not readily available for every IHSAA member. But an analysis of publicly available data estimates that the free or reduced lunch numbers portion of the proposal would affect only five schools in the 2018-20 classification cycle.
The number of schools trying to petition down based on their competitive history won’t be known unless the proposal passes.
The analysis shows Columbia would drop from 5A to 4A. Caldwell would stay at 4A under the proposal, making those two the largest 4A schools in the state.
The current system would return Caldwell and its growing student population to 5A for the first time since the 2010-11 school year.
Skyview would move up to 5A under both systems.
If Skyview and Caldwell joined the 5A ranks, it would create a 14-team 5A Southern Idaho Conference and leave a six-team 4A SIC, an outcome Hegstad said the SIC wants to prevent. Hegstad’s proposal would balance the leagues to 11 in 5A and nine in 4A, if Nampa successfully petitions down.
“We think this will curb the growth,” Hegstad said. “We’re not going to stop growth, but it will curb it a little bit. If nothing is changed, there will be 14 5A teams (in 2018-20). Fast-forward another two years, and you have Middleton and both Vallivue schools coming up. You’d have 17 teams.
“Is that equitable to the rest of the state when you have 17 5A teams, and they can’t compete with some of those other schools?”
Assuming schools that traditionally petition up or down a classification for geographical reasons will continue to do so, the only other schools affected by the free or reduced lunch numbers are Hansen, Logos and Lighthouse Christian (all up from 1A Division II to 1A Division I).
Other planned moves under the current classification system in fall 2018 — Idaho Falls and Thunder Ridge to 5A; Bonneville, Hillcrest and Shelley to 4A — still would happen under Hegstad’s proposal.
Jones said studies have proved the link between free or reduced lunch numbers and academic performance.
But athletic performance? That’s rooted in a belief that struggling schools don’t have as many resources or as many students who turn out for sports, which makes it harder to compete.
“A lot of it is philosophical,” Jones said. “If you believe it, it’s a pretty good proposal. If you don’t believe it, it’s probably not something you might be interested to see be promoted.”
How will it affect the SIC?
The proposed classification change would alter the 5A and 4A Southern Idaho Conferences when they realign at the beginning of the 2018-19 school. Below are the leagues the 20 schools currently play in and the leagues they would play in under the proposal, assuming Nampa successfully petitions down to 4A. If the proposal fails, Caldwell would move up to 5A, and Columbia and Nampa would remain in 5A.