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A simmering debate over Utah prep sports reached the Legislature on Wednesday, with a House committee approving new requirements for the Utah High School Activities Association.

Members of the House Education Committee voted 11-2 in favor of HB413, which places the association under Utah's open meetings and records laws and cuts the group's governing body in half, from 32 members to 15.

During the fall and winter, the Utah Board of Education approved and later delayed implementation of a policy that compels the association to loosen its restrictions on student-athletes transferring between teams.

Those transfer restrictions, seen by UHSAA as a check against improper recruitment and gamesmanship, were left untouched by HB413, which bill sponsor Rep. Francis Gibson, R-Mapleton, said is focused on increased public transparency.

"This bill is about a board size, creating an appeal panel and transparency," Gibson said. "We've left all the controversial stuff to the high school athletics association, the people who have done it so beautifully for 93 years."

UHSAA opposes the bill. The group, which oversees extracurricular activities like debate and theater in addition to athletics, is a voluntary organization for public and private high schools with a governing body composed of school and school district representatives.

Kristen Betts, UHSAA chairwoman and an elected member of the Nebo Board of Education, said the association has already taken steps toward some of the elements in HB413 — including the creation of an appellate body and the reduction of its governing board — and opposes efforts to lock its structure into state law.

"Our governance and oversight currently takes place at the grass-roots level," Betts said.

But committee members objected to the blurred lines presented by the association, which operates as a private entity despite receiving dues from public schools, in the form of taxpayer dollars, and conducting its events in public facilities.

Rep. Dan McCay, R-Riverton, said it was a "strike" against the organization that high schools are expected to pay a fee to participate in UHSAA activities.

"I don't know why you're collecting dues," McCay said. "At the end of the day, it sounds like you don't need it."

UHSAA is one of several private associations that receive payment from public schools, including associations for principals, district school board members, district superintendents and the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

Charter schools are sometimes fully operated by private management companies, which are exempt from public records laws, and a Tribune analysis of charter budgets showed that schools paid as much as $9,000 to the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools in 2015.

Robb Cuff, executive director of UHSAA, said the annual membership fee for schools is $250, plus $40 for every UHSAA activity the school participates in.

He also said UHSAA pays a rental fee for fields, gymnasiums and other event venues on public school campuses.

"We rely on those facilities," Cuff said. "We do pay for them, we don't get them for free."

And while the bill does not include athlete transfer rules, much of Wednesday's debate included concerns that the UHSAA could effectively restrict a student's academic options, in contradiction to Utah's open enrollment laws.

Betts said students are free to enroll at any school, but may not be able to compete in UHSAA events when they do.

"We do weigh in on student transfers as far as it comes to athletics," Betts said, "not academics."

Both the school board and now legislative debates have raised questions of bias, as former school board Chairman David Crandall and current House Speaker Greg Hughes, R-Draper, serve on the governing board of Summit Academy, which has faced UHSAA sanctions for violating association rules.

Hughes presented HB413 alongside Gibson, but emphasized that the legislation's intent is to strengthen the public's confidence in high school activities.

"There are people who would attach bad motives to this," he said.

The committee's two Democratic members voted against the bill. Rep. Carol Moss, D-Salt Lake City, said she didn't believe UHSAA was in need of fixing, and that the bill suggests lawmakers know better than the people who have been running high school sports for nearly a century.

"I can't help but feel the way I've felt with a lot of the legislation that this body has put on teachers in the classroom," Moss said. "That's what concerns me about this."

The bill will now advance to the full House for consideration.

Twitter: @bjaminwood

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