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Expect changes in PIAA under Lombardi

Published August 28. 2012 05:00PM

The question is a natural: Would the promotion of Dr. Robert Lombardi as the PIAA's seventh executive director result in substantial change to the organization?

We have our answer.

Less than two weeks after ascending to the PIAA's top post following the July resignation of former executive director Brad Cashman, Lombardi presented the PIAA's Board of Directors with a 100-day plan calling for significant changes to PIAA.

Much of it is inside baseball stuff, internal changes to staff and process that will be little noticed by the general public, at least immediately. But Lombardi said those changes, along with more visible changes to championship events themselves, will make PIAA a stronger organization across the board.

"This is not a nebulous group," Lombardi said of PIAA. "These are real people doing real work for the student-athletes of Pennsylvania, and we want to be out front with that."

Lombardi is aware that PIAA has suffered a publicity deficit for decades, in part because the general public and the media often do not understand (or care to understand) how the organization works or why it makes some of its often-criticized decisions.

"The most important thing we needed to do was reorganize the staff because that will improve our entire operation on a daily basis," Lombardi said. "But the second most important thing is to tell our story, to let people know what PIAA is and what it does."

To that end, Lombardi has proposed that he become the equivalent of a CEO, making final executive decisions on staff actions, while assistant executive director Mark Byers, the PIAA's constitution and by-laws expert, becomes the chief operating officer. Assistant executive director Melissa Mertz would become the associate executive director while newly hired assistant Pat Gebhart will handle PIAA's 14,000 registered officials.

"Already our customer service has improved 100 percent," Lombardi said. "Everybody on staff is tasked with returning calls and emails promptly. Everybody responds."

Everybody has to. With just five full-time executive-level employees - Greg Biller, the director business affairs is the fifth - PIAA has a smaller operations staff than most other states. Florida and Ohio, which have roughly the same number of schools as PIAA's 735 member high schools, have 12 and 9 executives respectively. Connecticut, which serves 187 high schools, has 10 executives.

Yet, the structural changes that Lombardi has championed do not address the issues that most concern the public: high-profile transfer and eligibility cases, site selections for championship events and the ongoing debate about public and private schools.

The latter issue - whether private schools should be classified differently than public schools or should even participate in the same championships as public schools - effectively died back in March courtesy of a legislative threat.

For nearly two years, the PIAA Board had grappled with the growing calls to do something about the inordinate number of private schools winning PIAA championships. About 20 percent of PIAA member schools are private schools or public charter schools that function much like private schools, but those schools have won an increasing percentage of state championships in recent years.

Because private schools are classified in the same manner as public schools despite the fact that many private schools draw from multiple public districts, critics claim private schools have an inherent advantage of their public counterparts.

So the PIAA, like many state associations, took a serious look at the issue. But just when it appeared the organization was prepared to move forward on making some changes, a proposed six-word amendment to the state's school code wiped out the effort.

Senate Bill 1389 of 2011 inserted language into the school code's non-discrimination clause that added private schools as a protected entity along with race, gender and other entities. The idea was to ensure that PIAA could not treat private schools differently than public schools in any way without breaking the law.

The amendment never came to a vote, but it didn't have to: The Board of Directors halted its effort to move forward on the public versus private issue once the amendment was introduced. And it won't revisit the matter any time soon.

Likewise, PIAA has been trying to find the perfect transfer and eligibility rule combination for nearly a half-century, yet has never been able to completely rid itself of its slippery "athletic intent" standard. Lombardi points out that finding the perfect process for dealing with transfers has eluded all of the nation's other state athletic associations as well.

So for now, Lombardi is focusing on the things he can directly affect, like bolstering the organization's finances by paying itself first rather than reacting to budget deficits, expanding sponsorships and activities for championship events, and improving PIAA's communications.

He is also open to looking at non-traditional sports, like downhill skiing, as potential state championship events.

"Why not? There might be some things out there we want to take on," said Lombardi, who noted that PIAA is adding a competitive spirit championship for the first time this school year.


Pennsylvania schools have a lot of legislation to deal with as they start the 2012-2013 school, including some that affects their athletic departments.

In June, Gov. Tom Corbett signed into law the Sudden Cardiac Arrest Prevention Act (Act 59 of 2012) which requires, among other things, athletes to be removed from play if they display potential symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA).

Those symptoms include dizziness, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, heart palpitations, fainting, fatigue, weakness, nausea, vomiting and chest pains. Once an athlete is removed from play or practice, he or she cannot return to any athletic activity until evaluated and clearned by a licensed physician, certified registered nurse practitioner or cardiologist. School trainers cannot clear athletes for play.

You can immediately see the problem with this law: simple dehydration often results in symptoms similar to those listed in the state law. The result could be that athletes will sit out practices and games unnecessarily. And the law also requires parents of athletes to sign a information and acknowledgement form, although the penalty and audit phase of the law does not kick in for two years.

Also, the General Assembly passed Act 82, which includes the former Equity in Interscholastic Disclosure Bill (SB 209). In essence, that law now requires schools that accept federal funding to publicly disclose athletic information broken down by gender.

That includes how much is spent by schools on each sport and reports on facilities and equipment. The first reporting date to the state's Department of Education is October of 2013, which means the state will collect data from this year's athletic programs.

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