The splintering began 15 years ago with a separate league for Tennessee private high schools that give financial aid. Then the TSSAA rules makers voted nine years ago to strap the private schools that had chosen to forgo giving financial aid so they could remain in the public school league by multiplying their enrollment by 1.8, thus forcing them to move up in classification to face tougher competition.
So what is the future of the public-private school relationship in the state? One shared belief by most coaches and administrators from both sides is that a complete split is on the horizon for Tennessee prep sports, eventually sending all private schools to Division II. The determining factor would be whether a school charges tuition.
"I think most of the smaller private schools in our area are doing things by the rules, and you feel for them when they have to play up in classification," said Sequatchie County principal Tommy Layne, who represents the Chattanooga area on the TSSAA Board of Control. "But I represent a lot of schools and I vote how the majority tells me to vote.
"Right now we've got a lot more public schools pushing to have a complete separation and split all private schools into Division II."
According to public school advocates, offering financial aid to student-athletes was at the heart of the original dispute in the mid-1990s. The year the split went into effect, 52 percent of TSSAA member schools supported a complete split of public-private schools. By 2002, five years later, that had risen to more than 70 percent.
In November of that year, school administrators voted overwhelmingly in support of Collinwood High's proposal to force the remaining 26 private schools out of Division I. Because of that vote, the two sides eventually compromised by implementing the 1.8 multiplier, which is the highest in the nation.
"Some of the public school folks want to talk about recruiting, but we've never even had a kid sign with an [NCAA] FBS program, so if we're recruiting, we're the worst recruiters in the country," said Boyd-Buchanan football coach Grant Reynolds, whose program is one of those affected by the multiplier. "We lose kids every year to area public schools because not everybody can afford our tuition ($8,500 annually). Most of our kids have been on our campus since elementary school.
"If the majority of public schools and the state keep pushing us, eventually I could see there being a complete split, which would be too bad. It could even cause all private schools to just start their own organization. It's all about winning and jealousy of some programs."
While the creation of D-II ended many of the complaints from large schools, the multiplier did not end the debate for those in favor of a complete split. Most small-school coaches claim the multiplier just moved the problem from Class 1A up to 2A and 3A.
Last season 17 private schools played for state titles in 17 boys' and girls' sports in the state's small-school classifications, including the two biggest money-making sports -- football and boys' basketball. Private schools won state football titles in 2A and 3A and boys' basketball titles in Class A and AA.
Private schools also won state titles in boys' soccer, girls' soccer (where both champions were private schools), Class A softball and volleyball, Class AA baseball and girls' basketball and girls' tennis (where both champs were private schools).
"In my opinion, it will come to a complete split," said former Ooltewah and East Ridge principal Ed Foster, who has served on the TSSAA's Legislative Council and still attends many council and board meetings as a consultant. "At almost every meeting something still comes up involving questions about the small private schools.
"There's still a lot of problems looming, and it's still a topic that a complete public-private split needs to happen."
Stephen has covered local sports in the tri-state area for more than 20 years, starting at the News-Free Press as a 19-year-old reporter. He has been with the Times Free Press since its inception and has been an assistant sports editor since 2005. Stephen is among the most decorated writers in the TFP’s newsroom, winning numerous state, regional and national writing awards. He was named one of the top 10 sports writers in the nation ...