A new governance model is being proposed for B.C. high school sports and if it passes, it will change the way secondary school sports operate.
And at its heart is a power struggle.
On one side, there are 15 high school sport commissions that want to keep the status quo. On the other side, there is the governing body of high school sports—B.C. School Sports (BCSS) and its board of directors—along with one commission, girls volleyball that want the current model to change. (Aquatics, football, ultimate, and field hockey have not come out in support of either side.)
As power struggles go, it’s an unconventional one: neither side has any power to keep the status quo or to upend a governance model that’s been around for decades. Instead, the decision to go forward or not lies in the hands of the province’s 460-plus high school athletic directors (ADs).
Currently, most high school sports are run by BC high school sport commissions under the direction of BCSS. A few, such as girls high school rugby and high school hockey, are run outside of BCSS.
If the BCSS’s governance proposal passes at the AGM May 1, the 20 high school sport commissions would cease to exist, some of which have long and storied histories that pre-date BCSS’s formation in 1970. (In the case of high school boys basketball, 75 years of history.)
In the proposal, BCSS seeks to create a new legislative assembly that would replace the commissions with a ruling body of 55 appointees. Three reps from each of the province’s nine school sport zones would make up the first 27 members (one has to be a school administrator—principal or vice principal—and one has to be a female). Nine members of the BCSS board, committee chairs from 10 subcommittees, and nine appointees from “partner organizations” would make up the final block of 28 appointees. Partner organizations would be groups such as the BCTF, the high school superintendents union, and others. Each of those groups would appoint their own person to the legislative assembly.
Below that would sit 20 Sport Advisory Committees, or SACs. Each SAC would be made up of 10 people: a chair plus one rep from each of the province’s nine sport zones. This would add up to another 200 people layered underneath the top tier.
Except the SACs would be advisors only. In essence, they’d be a replacement of the commissions, but stripped of any type of decision-making power. They would also not have any control over sponsorship money anymore.
They’d still be expected to work at the grassroots with the schools, coaches, and athletes, but the SACs would be able to only make suggestions to the subcommittees. The subcommittees would then present anything they felt should go forward to the legislative assembly. The assembly would then vote on any changes/proposals they felt should go forward.
And if the ADs do vote for change at the AGM on May 1, they will also be voting themselves out of the democratic process, as all decision-making power would then sit with the legislative assembly.
|Walter van Halst
“The BCSS sees the commissions as a threat because they have a lot of autonomy under the current governance structure,” said Walter van Halst, a teacher at Lord Tweedsmuir high school in Cloverdale. “The focus of our work is organizing the provincial championships, but we see ourselves as guardians of our sport throughout the year, who want our sports to grow and be inclusive.”
Van Halst is also the commissioner of boys high school rugby and he’s leading the opposition to the new governance proposal. Recently, van Halst sent out an open letter on behalf of 15 high school sport commissions, including boys high school rugby, to every AD in the province urging them to vote “no” on May 1.
In the letter, van Halst and 14 other commissioners say they “strongly oppose the proposal” for a few reasons.
They say the experience for student athletes will deteriorate.
“Those who are closest to and most familiar with each sport will no longer be making key decisions regarding the organization and play of each sport,” the letter says. “Instead, all decision-making authority would rest with a legislative assembly,which does not include any representation from these sports themselves.
“There is simply no way that people who have never coached in or organized any of these provincial championships can provide better guidance for our student-athletes than dedicated teacher-coaches with a lifetime of experience.”
The letter also argues that valuable expertise will be lost.
“Sports commissions consist of many volunteer individuals with a great deal of knowledge and passion for student participation in their sports … BCSS simply does not have the staff or experience to take their place.”
In the letter, van Halst also says provincial championships will suffer as some of these events involve “more than one thousand participants” and require “the continuing engagement of volunteers who are empowered to make decisions and feel valued for their commitment.”
Van Halst told the Cloverdale Reporter, the whole system relies on relationships. He doesn’t see how the BCSS will get the buy-in from the corps of volunteers that are needed to make championships successful.
According to van Halst, the proposed legislative assembly would be like the “British House of Lords.” He said the “elected representatives of each sport are not included and it’s full of appointed special interest groups which have never coached anything or run a provincial championship.”
Rick Thiessen, president of the BCSS board of directors, and AD at Abbotsford’s Mennonite Educational Institute, said the new governance proposal is exactly what high school sports needs right now.
“It became evident, as our new executive director talked to more and more people, that there was a desire for change,” said Thiessen. “In talking with many athletic directors throughout the province, the governance of B.C. School Sports was their biggest concern.”
Thiessen said the new governance model will be better for student athletes because it will be better for athletic directors and coaches. Both will find a more consistent approach in organizing sports. And he said there’d be virtually no change for most involved.
“We believe we are going to streamline the work of athletic directors and provide a more consistent set of resources for coaches that will be systematic and not really vary from one sport to another as they do now.”
He said BCSS also wants to see a more “consistent feel” at the various provincial championships. He said centralizing some of the decisions will allow for a longer-term approach to consistently move championships around the province.
He said they haven’t talked about moving the basketball or football finals around the province though.
“They are massive championships. It would be really hard to pull it off at a school,” said Thiessen. “There isn’t any plan at this point to move some of the bigger championships around.”
Thiessen agrees, there are a lot of subcommittees in the proposal.
“Of the 55 members of the legislative assembly, 27 of them will be representatives from each zone (three each). And then committee chairs from the policy committees: that includes championship committees, rules committees, and a couple of other committees.”
He said the SACs would sit below those committees, supporting the subcommittees and the BCSS staff.
“For example, boys basketball would have a sport advisory committee (SAC). They would have a chair. There would be representatives from throughout the province. They would also be able to place people on … the Winter Sports Rules Committee.” He said there would be a rep from each winter sport on that committee.
“That sport advisory committee then would place people on the championship committee as well as the rules committee and so they would have an opportunity to discuss ideas at their sport advisory committee and then … that recommendation would be taken by their rep to the championship committee or the rules committee. And then that committee would discuss it and then bring a recommendation to the legislative assembly.”
Thiessen said governance is only half the reason for the new model. He said BCSS also wants to improve “equity” on two fronts, geographical equity and gender equity.
“Many of the commissioners are from the Lower Mainland, in almost every sport. They tend to make decisions that reflect concerns of people in this area rather than throughout the province,” he said.
“And the second form of equity that’s really missing, and that we hope to correct, is gender equity. Where is the voice for women? For people involved in sports in Fort St. John or Cranbrook, where is their voice?”
He said that is the one of the greatest strengths of the new proposal. “We should hear from more voices than the ones we currently hear.”
“When I hear some of the opponents—boys basketball is probably the most vocal—it’s’ amazing to me that the voices you hear are the ones from Vancouver and the Fraser Valley. There isn’t acknowledgement that maybe their concerns are not reflective of what everyone is thinking on the Island or in Kelowna.”
Ken Dockendorf has coached boys high school basketball for more than 50 years. He worked within the framework of the boys basketball commission to create the AAAA division. He also helped restructure how provincials are run, creating the current system where all four divisions compete for championships at the same time at the LEC.
He said he’s heard all the arguments in favour of the new proposal and he’s still against it.
In an email to the Cloverdale Reporter, he said the sheer number of committees concerns him.
“This new model … is so immense that decision making will be very difficult,” he said. “Each former commission would now need to be involved in at least 11 committees and there is no guarantee that our coaches’ voices would be respected.”
Dockendorf, the current president of the BC High School Boys Basketball Association said his commission has called on all basketball coaches to ask their ADs to vote against the proposal on May 1.
“This is the most significant change in the history of high school sports in this province,” Dockendorf said. “It is simply not appropriate to be trying to push this through during this extremely difficult time in education dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.”
If the commissions are disbanded, Dockendorf also worries about the loss of volunteers (including coaches) who the commissions rely on for “expertise, leadership, passion and personal commitments to their sports.”
He also opposes the new model, because he says coaches will be removed from the decision-making process.
“Retaining our volunteer coaches and trying to encourage new, younger coaches is difficult at the best of times,” Dockendorf said. “Coaches need to know that they have a voice—including our community coaches—or we will continue to lose volunteers from the most important group (after our student-athletes) in our system.”
He added, under the current system, all schools have a vote. “This new model will take that vote away from schools and replace it with only three representatives per zone.”
|Girls Basketball Commission
The girls basketball commission is also opposed to the governance proposal. The commission posted a statement on their website noting their concerns.
“All future decisions regarding BC Secondary Schools Girls Basketball will be made by BCSS committees.” They note the committees can only be composed of teachers/admins that are currently working.
“Retired teacher-coaches and community coaches are not permitted to be on these decision making committees. We value the input, expertise and dedication of many individuals who will no longer be welcome in this process.”
The girls basketball commission also notes all rule changes and decisions for girls basketball going forward will be made by committees that they will have limited, or no, representation in.
“Only one person per sport. After two years, that 1 person may be a representative from boys basketball leaving girls basketball with no representation.”
The girls basketball commission also thinks the SACs will not “provide adequate representation or expertise in the decision making process for the best interest of girls basketball.”
Jordan Abney is the executive director of BCSS. Although he doesn’t have a vote, and won’t be part of the new legislative assembly, he’s still hoping ADs vote for change May 1.
Abney said his office completed a strategic planning process back in 2017-2018 and the number one request from schools was a change in governance.
He said if the proposal passes, it will be business as usual for the kids.
“Ideally the student athlete experience, from an event standpoint, is not going to change. Our goal is to continue championships looking and feeling very much like they do now.”
He said longer-term this puts BCSS in a position to enhance the student athlete experience. He doesn’t think that will get better immediately, but he said it will change over time.
“We’ll be in a position to look at all sorts of different programs—not just championships, but far beyond that—that will continue to help athletic directors, help coaches, help student athletes, and provide a stronger and better experience over time.”
Abney said the proposal has been crafted in a way that addresses a bunch of different issues. He also mentioned the lack of diversity and a lack of geographic representation.
“I’ve been at meetings where, for all intents and purposes, there’s three people at the meeting that control the entire organization and there’s very little voice given to those that are outside the Lower Mainland area.”
He said the new legislative assembly will enable BCSS to better engage stakeholder groups around the province through better communication and a transparent decision-making process.
“We have a lot of commissions that have done really good jobs with events and stuff, but the governance, the transparency, and the decision-making is all over the map. That’s a big challenge for our member schools.”
Abney said he understands that some of the commissions have unique histories and that is the reason for some of the pushback.
“Boys basketball celebrated their 75th anniversary,” Abney said. “We recognize they’ve got a rich history and they celebrate it. We honour that and we’ll hope to continue to do that.”
He thinks if the proposal does pass, it’ll also be business as usual for the army of volunteers that are the backbone of high school sports in B.C.
He said he’s also aware that many of the commissioners may not come across to the new model. (Each commissioner has been offered to chair their respective inaugural SAC, should the proposal pass.)
Ultimately, he thinks most volunteers, coaches, and commissioners will respect the new model.
“I think people will say, ‘Okay, let’s get to work and make it successful.’ Because that’s the type of people that work in school sports.
“Most people volunteer their time because a.), they love seeing kids succeed and b.), they’re passionate about their sport. And neither of those things is changing.”