DIVIDING Hawaii high school athletics along public and private school lines is a subject of informal discussion among administrators statewide.
But is there an actual plan of implementation brewing, either up front or behind closed doors?
It depends on who you talk to -- and if they're on the record.
Department of Education Superintendent Pat Hamamoto says no.
"The subject comes up in ongoing dialogue," Hamamoto said. "But there is no move toward pulling the public schools away from the private schools at the league or state level. We plan to continue as a partner with private schools in those areas. Realistically, we need each other. Of course, there's times when we disagree, but ultimately for the kids, the state tournaments we have are the best possible forum to showcase their skills and talents."
But one longtime athletic official, who prefers to remain anonymous, believes a covert plan exists to end competition between the public and private schools.
Another official, Maui Interscholastic League Executive Secretary Stephen Kim, told the Star-Bulletin last week that he thinks public vs. private school competition is healthy.
"We like the way our league is running now," Kim said. "It would hurt us if the Maui public schools (such as Baldwin and Lahainaluna) didn't play against the private schools (such as Seabury Hall and St. Anthony). I don't know why they would want to split it up."
But, in an illustration of how confusing this issue can be, Kim said he was misunderstood in an article in another publication last week, when it was implied he knew of a "three-year plan" to implement a split, but that the plan is on the "back-burner."
Kim said he made no mention of a three-year plan in reference to dividing competition.
Hamamoto, Big Island Executive Secretary Keith Morioka and Kauai Interscholastic Federation Executive Secretary Diane Nitta were asked specifically if the three-year plan exists and all said they've never heard of it.
IF THERE IS a behind-the-scenes plot to divide competition on the neighbor islands, it wouldn't affect intra-league play on Oahu, which has one public-school league (Oahu Interscholastic Association) and one league (Interscholastic League of Honolulu) made up almost exclusively of private schools.
Earlier this year, a DOE athletic directors and principals meeting agenda item entitled "Separation of public and private school leagues (liability concerns)," fueled speculation of an impending split.
But several public-school administrators -- including Hamamoto and Leilehua athletic director Richard Townsend -- said that item refers strictly to making sure liability responsibilities are clearly defined. In other words, they want liability issues in legal matters (not actual competition) to be "separate," with the public schools handling their own matters and the private schools taking care of their own issues.
Two of the three neighbor-island leagues -- the BIIF and the KIF -- haven't fully addressed the separation of liability concerns. The MIL did so a few years ago by officially making itself a non-profit organization and purchasing liability insurance.
The anonymous source said the liability talk is a smokescreen for the DOE's real intention of splitting the public and private schools at both the league and statewide level.
Liability isn't an issue at state tournaments because the Hawaii High School Athletic Association -- which runs the events -- has insurance to cover all participants.
HHSAA Executive Director Keith Amemiya thinks a split would go against the goals of providing the best possible competition for student-athletes.
It could also seriously limit the role of the HHSAA or make it obsolete, because the public and private schools could ostensibly run their own tournaments.
IF ELEMENTS WITHIN the DOE are plotting a separation, one possible motive is to eliminate the private schools' dominance at state tournaments.
Grudges between some segments of the OIA and the ILH is another possible motive. Ill will stems from competitive imbalance that led to a 1970 breakup when five ILH public schools left to join the Rural Oahu Interscholastic Association.
Kalaheo Principal James Schlosser talks openly of what he calls the "inequality" of the public and private schools. The latter often have fatter athletic budgets, better facilities, a larger pool of quality athletes on campus and a bigger geographic reach from which to draw athletes.
"These are real issues, core issues," Schlosser said. "I would be lying to you if I said it wasn't an issue, but I don't know of any real movement (toward a split). It's not a hot topic and I don't think you'd find a document about it anywhere. I'm not promoting it (a split), but I am for anything that creates an equal playing field.
"At Kalaheo, for instance, we don't have a football field, a track, a baseball field or a softball field and it's inconvenient for our teams to have to go elsewhere to practice. Many private schools have the very best facilities."
Waimea athletic director Jim Kitamura submitted a proposal for creating separate public- and private-school state championships at last year's Hawaii Interscholastic Athletic Directors Association conference, but it didn't get any support.
BENHAM CUP DATA (see Scoreboard, B8) over the past two years reveals how much farther ahead the top private schools are in athletic competition as compared to the top public schools. However, it is obvious the public schools (winners of 17 of the 36 state championships in 2003-04) are catching up.
Castle Principal Meredith Maeda said the DOE discusses contingency plans if funding cuts ever put a crimp on public-school athletics and make it difficult for schools to field teams and be able to continue at the state level.
"Our priority is for athletics in the school first, then athletics in the league and then athletics in the state," he said.
The contingency plans are also necessary to address other emergency situations. One such emergency occurred during the 2001 teachers' strike when public schools were told they couldn't practice and private schools weren't restricted.
The anonymous source said talk of budget cuts and contingency plans is a way for the public schools to put their desire of separation into motion.
Townsend and Kim said that if the DOE wanted to separate from private schools, the OIA wouldn't have made a two-year agreement to schedule many non-league, early-season football games against ILH private schools.
This year's HIADA conference starts later this week on the Big Island and it remains to be seen if these issues will be heard.