A federal court judge in Alexandria is expected to rule today on whether Bishop Denis J. O'Connell High School can become a member of the Virginia High School League (VHSL) and regularly participate in public school athletic competition.
The Arlington school filed suite in June against 26 Northern Region public high school principals in the league charging them with discrimination in violation of the 14th Amendment.
The VHSL governs high school athletics and other extracurricular activities for a majority of public high schools in the state. The schools pay $350 a year membership dues. The VHSL claims it is not an agent of the state of Virginia, but that point has become a key question in the suit.
All Northern Virginia public high schools are VHSL members, but O'Connell, as a co-educational private Catholic school with 1,600 students, is prohibited from competing against them regularly in major revenue producing sports such as football and basketball. In any event, VHSL scheduling provides little if any room for non-member teams.
After being denied admission to the VHSL on the grounds that section 8 of the VHSL constitution limits membership to public schools, O'Connell filed suit.
Bill McMurtrie, attorney for O'Connell says, "O'Connell is demanding what is its right, not a privilege, as VHSL would have you to believe."
Virginia is one of only four states which bars most private versus public school competition.
Though the VHSL says it is financed by membership dues, admissions and entry fees, and revenue from other sources, McMurtrie says he has discovered that the state, in fact, is directly involved in the VHSL's operation.
McMurtrie notes that a Northern Virginia high school principal was recently reimbursed for a trip to VHSL headquarters in Charlottesville with a check drawn on the State's bank account at the Southern Bank and Trust Company in Richmond. The check was signed by the State treasurer.
"That's pure tax money," said McMurtrie. "But the VHSL says it's not a part of the state; it's an independent organization not created by the state. So what does the VHSL pay the state for this (reimbursement) service? Nothing that they've shown me."
John Dezio, the VHSL attorney, says there is no statute authorizing the state to perform functions for the VHSL. The VHSL gives the state the money for its payroll and reimbursements and the state, Dezio says, then puts the money into an account and writes the necessary checks. The VHSL does not pay the state for these services, Dezio says.
"Yes, we get state services," Dezio says. "No, we don't pay for them.
"But what the state does for us is a trade off of services for what the league does for state schools. That's just the way they've always done it."
"it amazes me that this hasn't been challenged in the past," McMurtrie said. "It could be that it's just been a habit for the state and that the state doesn't realize the VHSL is not a state agency."
Interrogatories McMurtrie conducted with area high school principals indicated that 14 of them "have no objection at all" to O'Connell entering the VHSL. "Only three objected," he says, "but they can't give any reasons. They just say it would be against VHSL rules."
If O'Connell is permitted to join VHSL and compete against nearby schoold in Northern Virginia, O'Connell athletic director Tom McNichol predicted the move would "triple our income from athletic events."
Officials at the three Arlington County high schools - Yorktown, Washington-Lee, and Wakefield - appear hopeful that O'Connell will be admitted to the VHSL because they feel the natural geographic revalry O'Connell provides will produce large crowds and gate receipts.
W-L generated $12,200 last year from its football program, a figure which was tops among Arlington schools but only 16th overall among the 26 Northern region high schools. Yorktown won its district championship in football last season, but grossed only $10,000, 21st in the region. Wekefield grossed $8,900 lowest in the region.
VHSL membership would help O'Connell provide equal athletic opportunities for girls as required under federal Title 9 guidelines, said O'Connell principal Al Burch. Currently, as the only local private school that is co-educational, he added, O'Connell must find separate schools for its boys and girls to play, an added expense.
O'Connell officials and McMurtrie said they were also unhappy about having to pay rent (currently $200 per game) for using W-L Memorial Stadium for football games.
"That stadium doesn't belong to the school," McMurtrie says. "When W-L plays in it, they don't pay for it. It belongs just as much to O'Connell as to any other group in the state."
In recent years, O'Connell has played other private schools and some public shcoools as far away as West Virginia, Loudoun County, and manassas, often traveling 50 miles or more to compete.
During the 17-year history of O'Connell, the school has competed against Northern Region public schools on various occasions and at one time declined an offer to participate in the Potomac District because, according to Burch. "We would not have been eligible for any championship play."
"O'Connell has always been considered all right as long as it didn't get in the way," McMurtrie says.