The association that regulates high school athletics hires lobbyists and gives out plenty of free playoff tickets to legislators.
It also, from time to time, issues “alerts” to school administrators, asking them to contact their state representatives or senators immediately.
Those are the ways the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association has inserted itself into state politics.
Lately, that hasn’t worked out too well for the group.
OSSAA is under fire at the Capitol because fed-up legislators say they have heard too many complaints from offended student-athletes’ parents and from angry coaches.
“It was absolutely asinine,” one parent wrote a lawmaker of an OSSAA decision.
Legislators responded this year by introducing six bills targeting OSSAA. Advancing the farthest so far are two that give the Legislature oversight of the association.
Making things worse for OSSAA, this year it has had to find a new lobbyist. Both its original lobbyists dropped the association as a client. One told the association in a letter it was inflexible.
Fueling the focus on the group is a harsh opinion by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.
In a 7-2 ruling last October, the Supreme Court slammed the association for taking arbitrary and capricious actions against a football team.
State Supreme Court slams association
“Competition in sports is more than a mere passing enjoyment for students,” Justice Yvonne Kauger wrote for the majority. “Particularly in rural areas, athletic teams are the glue which holds the community together. The college and post-college careers of student athletes often have their genesis at the secondary school level, and for some provide the only path to higher education.
“The OSSAA wields too much control over their future to be allowed to act in an arbitrary and capricious manner in applying its rules. It must be reasonable, it must be conscientious and it must be fair. From now on, we trust, it will be.”
OSSAA oversees extracurricular activities for nearly every public school in Oklahoma for grades seven through 12. It makes decisions on the makeup of athletic districts, playoffs and student transfers and eligibility.
It has 481 members and an annual budget of about $5 million.
OSSAA officials and its supporters contend lawmakers should not be interfering in the doings of a private association.
“We understand we are not a perfect organization,” OSSAA Executive Director Ed Sheakley said. “We understand that we can always get better. And we want to get better. But we feel that our changes need to be from within and from our membership and not by our state government.
“We’ve been around for a long time ... over 100 years,” he also said. “We’re always changing. … We want to do what’s best for kids.”
In debating against one of the oversight bills, Rep. Gary Banz, R-Midwest City, in February questioned whether legislators will want to oversee the Oklahoma Coaches Association if some parent complains about his child not making an All-State team.
“Are we going to go after them next?” Banz asked. “I don’t think we need to be spending our time with those private organizations.”
State Rep. Bobby Cleveland, R-Slaughterville, has emerged as the chief critic of OSSAA at the Capitol. He is the author of one of the oversight bills.
He claims the association is “made up of bullies who intimidate students, parents, coaches and school superintendents and who make up the rules as they go.”
He dislikes the association’s political maneuvering. In an interview with The Oklahoman last week, he said OSSAA shouldn’t hire lobbyists because, in his opinion, it is funded by taxpayers.
He specifically criticized giving out free playoff tickets to legislators.
“I don’t agree with that at all. To me, it’s like a bribe. They shouldn’t be going around and trying to bribe you,” Cleveland said.
He also criticized the association for issuing a “legislative alert” encouraging school administrators to call state representatives last month in an effort to defeat his bill.
In a Feb. 21 news release, he said: “I hope the OSSAA doesn’t expect these teachers and administrators to lobby the Legislature while on duty. That is illegal.”
OSSAA first hired lobbyists in 2011.
It agreed to pay lobbyists Terry Ingmire and Vickie White Rankin $5,000 the first year, $15,000 the second year and $15,000 the third year.
It hired a new lobbyist, Jerrod Shouse, in January. His fee is $2,000 a month.
Ingmire said he dropped OSSAA as a client to focus on other clients.
Rankin told OSSAA in a letter she was dropping it as a client after evaluating “your situation from many angles.” She told OSSAA the challenges it faces “in a rapidly changing educational and public policy environment ... demand organizational flexibility and engagement.”
OSSAA has handed out complimentary passes to football and basketball games to legislators for decades. Each legislator can get up to two.
“It’s really just a way for them to connect,” Sheakley said. “I’ve been here 22 years. And it’s been in our policy ever since I’ve been here.”
OSSAA gave out more than 140 passes to legislators in the past two school years, according to records the association released to The Oklahoman.
“I, along with many other legislators, thank you for extending this courtesy as it allows us to follow High Schools in our legislative districts throughout playoff competition,” Rep. Ben Sherrer, D-Chouteau, wrote in September 2012 in his request for two passes. “Your support of our efforts to be active in our local schools is greatly appreciated.”
The association disputes that it gets taxpayer funds. Sheakley said the association received around $300,000 from schools last fiscal year in participation fees. He said he understands those participation fees come from ticket sales not state appropriations.
The association has told legislators the vast majority of its revenue comes from gate receipts from football and basketball playoff contests.