There will be no merger this year for the football programs at high schools North and South.
Peter Schulman, deputy commissioner at the state Department of Education on July 12 ruled against the West Windsor-Plainsboro School District’s appeal of a decision by the NJSIAA that barred the schools from merging programs this year.
District officials have argued that the merger was necessary this year for safety reasons due to low participation at High School North. As of press time, the district’s next move—and the fate of football at High School North—is unknown.
“We are extremely disappointed in this recent decision. At this time, we are evaluating our options,” said superintendent David Aderhold in response to Schulman’s decision.
Other options open to the district include playing the season as an undermanned and largely inexperienced North team, cancelling the season outright, or for the players to transfer to High School South or a private school.
Time is growing short for a decision. The issue was not slated to be discussed by the school board at its meeting on July 25.
The next meeting of the board is on Aug. 22, which is more than a week after the first day of football practice is scheduled to start on Aug. 12, according to the school district website.
Currently, Jude Batoon, Brian Murphy, Jack Rome and Tyrell Williams are the only rising seniors returning to the Knights for the fall football season.
There are also four rising juniors and 16 rising sophomores set to play next year. That’s only 24 total players with varsity experience as the team heads into the fall—a very low number in a sport where teams routinely use 30 or 40 players per game to minimize fatigue, and injuries are commonplace.
Earlier this year, the NJSIAA rejected the district’s request to combine the two programs due to a rule that prohibits Group III and larger schools from combining. High School North is Group III and High School South is Group IV. The rule was enacted to prevent the creation of powerhouse teams.
‘They are clearly more interested in protecting football’s power point system… than the student-athletes they are supposed to represent and protect.’
The district tried to alleviate that fear by offering to forfeit all playoff and division championship chances and offered all the power points available to any opposing team as well, but the NJSIAA rejected that proposal.
The NJSIAA’s Advisory Committee has endorsed a proposed legislation change that would allow Group III schools and larger to play as co-ops with stiff postseason penalties, but that move won’t be considered until December and wouldn’t help the situation at High School North this year, even if it were approved.
In a last-ditch effort, the district in June appealed for “emergent relief” to the state Department of Education Commissioner Kimberley Harrington to overturn the NJSIAA’s decision. She passed the issue down to Schulman for adjudication, who ruled that the district had not met the requirements for emergent relief.
“Upon review of the parties’ submissions, I find that the district has failed to meet the standard required for emergent relief because the district has not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits,” wrote Schulman in his decision.
Schulman said that the WW-P School Board had passed a resolution that permitted students to participate in co-curricular and/or athletic programs at the other district high school when such programs are not offered at their school of residence. He said the board’s resolution effectively allowed the cooperative agreement for football that is expressly prohibited by the NJSIAA’s constitution and bylaws and was the subject of the waiver request that was denied by the NJSIAA’s League and Controversies Committees.
“More specifically, the district has not made a preliminary showing that the NJSIAA applied its rules in an arbitrary or unreasonable manner when it denied the district’s request for a hearing and immediate action of the board resolution based on the fact that the substance of the resolution was already decided by the League and Conference Committee after an extensive hearing,” Schulman said.
Robin Rome, mother of Jack Rome, criticized the decision. “The commissioner of education’s response was a cop-out,” she said. “[Harrington] punted to an assistant commissioner, who issued a nonsensical decision focused on process. Throughout this ordeal, the NJSIAA and commissioner have chosen to ignore the compelling evidence presented by the WW-P District, including the risk of injury to our players.
“They are clearly more interested in protecting football’s power point system and the NJSIAA’s archaic rules rather than the student-athletes they are supposed to represent and protect,” Rome said.
“I have no doubt that our coaches, players and community will continue to show the same heart and passion on the field as they have throughout this process,” she said.