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Yakima Herald-Republic file photo

YAKIMA, Wash. - As long as Washington’s high schools have been sliced into classes to determine their athletic opportunities — and that’s 56 years of history — only one thing has mattered.

Body count.

Simple as that.

But following a national trend of recognizing more criteria than solely enrollment, the WIAA’s Representative Assembly will vote late this month on an amendment that would significantly change how the classification landscape is formed.

And for some, help level it.

There will be two highly anticipated amendments voted on at the Winter Coalition of the 53-member Representative Assembly on Jan. 28. The first would create fixed boundaries for the state’s six classifications, scraping the percentages currently used to create class uniformity. This in itself would be a major shift, considering what it could mean for state tournaments, but when paired with its bookend amendment it seems to pale by comparison.

Next up for vote is a socioeconomic factor that would adjust a school’s enrollment, a system used in Oregon and several other states with more joining soon. In this proposal, schools with high percentages of free and reduced lunches could, in many cases, drop down a class.

What could that mean locally?

Plenty.

Wapato, Toppenish and Quincy would likely drop out of the CWAC with Grandview on the bubble, and Granger and Highland would almost certainly drop from 1A to 2B with Cle Elum also headed down on the hard-count amendment.

The CBBN could face losing Sunnyside, which despite its increasing student population would easily be eligible for 3A status with a free-and-reduced number 32 percent higher than the state average.

Competitive equity

This socioeconomic issue has been debated for years, mostly — and often heatedly — in the form of a private vs. public discussion. But the scope has widened considerably with the explosion of a youth sports industry that attracts teenage athletes to speciality camps, traveling club teams, offseason coaching and so much more — all of which costs money.

Who can pay? Certainly not everybody, especially less-affluent communities with far fewer resources and access.

Naches Valley principal Rich Rouleau, a WIAA Executive Board member for the last 13 years, is part of a classification committee that crafted these two amendments, adding and dropping elements and fine-tuning through a process than spanned nearly two years.

“All things came into play with a lot of thoughts and ideas,” he said. “The guiding principles were always grounded in the same things — fairness, safety and competitive equity. Classification is one of the hot-button topics, we understand that, and one way never works for everybody. But it’s clear using enrollment as the only criteria isn’t working. There’s agreement on that.”

In the second amendment, the committee is presenting the following formula: If a high school’s free-and-reduced number is 10 percent higher than the state average of 43 percent, then 10 percent of its enrollment can be deducted for classification. That scale increases incrementally until the maximum deduction of 40 percent is reached.

Toppenish, Granger, White Swan and Mabton were all over 83 percent free-and-reduced last year (numbers will be updated in 2019), qualifying them for the highest deduction. With an enrollment of 723 for the current classification cycle, Toppenish, as an example, would drop to 434 with the 40-percent adjustment — below the proposed 2A hard-count minimum of 450.

“In some ways it’s long overdue,” said Toppenish athletic director Brett Stauffer. “A lot of schools may not understand it, but the socioeconomic challenges for communities like Toppenish and Wapato are more than they can imagine. The reality is most of our parents can’t afford a lot of the things (associated with athletics) and in many sports that makes it difficult to compete.”

Stauffer noted that in the 10-school CWAC there was initial resistance to the proposal but now a majority support it.

“I made a passionate plea that we really need to look at this and it feels like there’s a better understanding of it now,” he said. “I have no idea how the westside might vote, but if it passes we would definitely move down and embrace it.”

Based on current numbers in the CWAC, six would qualify for a reduction with a free-and-reduced percentage over 53 percent. Prosser and Othello are both above but the adjustment wouldn’t be enough for them to drop a class.

Wapato principal David Blakney expects his student count to be about 100 higher than the enrollment used in the current cycle. But with a 37-percent reduction, Wapato would easily drop to 1A.

“We’re one of the smaller 2A schools to begin with,” Blakney pointed out. “The CWAC has been a really good league for us, but I think this amendment does matter. Other states have used it, and I think there’s quite a bit of momentum behind it.”

Toppenish and Wapato could slide into the SCAC West and fill the voids left by Granger and Highland. But Granger athletic director Dave Pearson said his district would take a patient approach if the amendment passes.

“The 40 percent would take us down to 2B for sure, but we would still like to see what everybody else is doing,” he said. “We’ve been spoiled in the SCAC with fairly close travel and it’s always been our league. But I do think we’d be a good fit in the EWAC (2B).”

Pearson noted there is majority support for the amendment in the 14-school SCAC, which could see a total of five schools drop down.

“The intent is what everybody likes and the logic behind it,” he said. “I’m not sure about the percentages, which might be too high. Forty percent (maximum) seems pretty drastic. If it doesn’t pass that will probably be the reason.”

In the CBBN, only Sunnyside, Davis and Eisenhower are above 53 percent. Davis, at 63.89-percent free-reduced with an enrollment of 1,625, could possibly flirt with dipping below the proposed 4A minimum of 1,300. But athletic director Bob Stanley said Davis, like Eisenhower, would opt up to 4A in that case.

Fix the numbers

Yes, opt-ups would still be allowed as they always have been. Opt-ups played a not-so-small role in the creation of the first proposed amendment — the return to fixed numbers for classifications.

Based on historical data, the committee established these hard-line boundaries in the proposal — 4A, 1,300-up; 3A, 900-1,299; 2A, 450-899; 1A, 225-449; 2B, 105-224; 1B, 104-below.

Back when the current four-year cycle was established in 2016, a whopping 22 schools eventually elected to opt-up to 4A. When the percentages were then applied to keep the class sizes balanced, several unsuspecting schools were pushed down to 3A and many of them unhappily so. The lines seemed to move overnight, deadlines for decisions created all sorts of angst and for any school on the bubble it was a tumultuous process, especially with a four-year commitment at stake and not two, as before.

If this amendment passes, schools will know the exact numbers and be better able to plan as we head into the next four-year cycle, which begins in the fall of 2020.

The hitch is, with imbalanced classifications a certainty, having the same sized state tournaments across the board would be an issue, just as it was in the mid-90s before the WIAA created an additional class.

So that would open the door for state tournaments of different sizes, maybe 20 or 24 qualifiers for one and 12 for another. There is an “equitable entry” table within the proposal that establishes the size of a state tournament depending on the number of schools in a class.

When the Rep Assembly convenes, a 60-percent yes vote is required for passage and three things could happen — both amendments go through, there’s a split or both fail. The Assembly has long shown a willingness to make adjustments to classifications and tournaments, but is it too soon for an unprecedented societal change?

Undeniable trend

Oregon adopted its socioeconomic factor over four years ago, culminating a process that started with the private-public debate.

The state considered a multiplier for private schools, which would bump most of them to a higher classification, but opted for the free-reduced factor when research showed a correlation between very high percentages and schools that struggled on the field.

Washington’s classification committee followed a similar route, including in the original drafts a multiplier not just for private schools but for public schools with a low free-reduced count. After statewide discussion and feedback, those pieces were removed from the proposal.

Even if the second amendment fails, it’s not likely to go away. States across the country are adding factors and formulas to the classification process, acknowledging that enrollment numbers can’t stand alone anymore.

“All of this is a work in progress with no end in sight,” Rouleau said. “There are so many things that could be on the horizon. There are states with a success criteria (Indiana), and some with different classification systems from sport to sport.

“But with the socioeconomic piece, that’s something a lot of states are looking at and they should,” he added. “Through our conferences and workshops with athletic directors, there seems to be support for it. The momentum is in that direction.”