With eligibility for varsity sports riding on the outcome, the complicated and sometimes contentious process for handling student transfers is plagued with “deficiencies’’ and needs legislative action to provide more transparency, a legislative audit disclosed Tuesday.
The Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor spent much of the last year examining the practices of the Minnesota State High School League, which oversees student eligibility for its 630 member high schools.
The auditor’s 96-page report cited deficiencies in the league’s eligibility criteria and how it makes eligibility decisions. It also criticized the league’s board of directors for what the report called insufficient oversight of the administration of student eligibility.
The report, presented to the Legislature’s Education Innovation Policy Committee, recommended seven areas of change in the league’s policies and by-laws regarding student athletes who change schools. It also called for improving the league website and correspondence to keep parents and schools better informed.
High school league Executive Director Dave Stead said the league welcomes the recommendations as a chance to improve its eligibility processes.
“When you get a report like this, our goal is to make things better and take advantage of the opportunities that we have now because of what they looked at from an outside standpoint,” Stead said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
The audit was the first of the league since it tightened its eligibility rules in 2007, decreeing that unless there was a residence change, students changing schools after ninth grade must sit out one year of varsity competition. Most transfers are held to this standard, but others are complicated by factors such as divorcing parents, students with special needs and changes in schools.
Most eligibility cases are handled and finished at the school level. For example, in 2015-16, 1,747 students transferred to a league-member school. Of that total, 850 had eligibility denied at the school level.
Of those denied, 129 appealed to the league office, of which 66 were granted and 63 were denied. Of those denied, 51 requested a hearing. Of those requests, 12 received hearings, 22 had their eligibility granted without a hearing and 17 were denied hearings and eligibility.
The small number, however, does not diminish their importance, Deputy Auditor Judy Randall said.
“While the number is small, the impact can be deep,” she said. “We’d like to see more compassion.”
Two recommendations received the most interest from the legislative committee: A need to streamline the process for appeals by making all necessary information and requirements readily available, and a lack of timeliness in the scheduling for an appeal.
The audit, which reviewed 40 cases, cited “inconsistent eligibility determinations among ...similar cases and delays due to deficiencies in league criteria and inconsistent, inadequate guidance.”
“My concern is that wasn’t a single source to tell a family here’s what they need to do and here’s where they need to go,” said Rep. Sondra Erickson, the committee chair. “It’s difficult to find the information needed.”
The lack of timeliness in appeals has long been a sore spot for families and students involved in the hearing process, with many stating that a season is often nearing completion before the hearing takes place.
“Sometimes there’s some discrepancies, not treating everybody fairly,” said Rep. Bob Dettmer, a former Forest Lake wrestling coach who proposed the audit in 2016. “Those were concerns that were brought to me by parents.”
The auditor’s report also recommended the Legislature amend state statutes to require the league to maintain transparency throughout the eligibility process and give the Minnesota Department of Education more leeway in oversight and review.
The league, in a response letter to the recommendations, said it plans to implement most of them and raised concerns only where amending state statutes was concerned. It is a non-profit organization that is not a state agency and receives no direct funding from the Legislature but is subject to legislative oversight.
Minneapolis attorney James T. Smith, who has battled the league on a transfer case involving a Cretin Derham-Hall soccer player, called the report “a great first step’’ that ‘‘doesn’t go far enough to ensure consistency and transparency.’’
“If you’re persistent enough to get a hearing and you’re denied, the question is, what do you do at that point?’’ Smith said. “All it would take is the legislature to put into state law that the right to participate in athletics is part of a student’s constitutional right to education in Minnesota. That would end a lot of inconsistency and vague bylaw interpretation.”
Staff writer David La Vaque contributed to this report.