WIAA votes in two big changes to high-school classification system

Nathan Joyce

The Seattle Times

The Washington Interscholastic Activities Association’s Representative Assembly voted Monday morning to approve two proposals that dramatically shake up the state’s classification system.

The 53-member body made up of educators from across the state voted to change the state classifications from balanced percentages to hard-number caps at its Winter Coalition meeting in Renton. These classifications are based on a school’s enrollment numbers.

The assembly also voted to approve the amendment (changes in state rules are called amendments because they amend the state rule book) that would factor in free and reduced lunch in classifications, a system that could help less-affluent schools drop down a classification in order to achieve a competitive balance.

The changes will go into effect for the 2020-21 school year.

“This is the start of a discussion,” WIAA Executive Director Mike Colbrese said. “This is the first necessary step. There is no perfect system.”

Two big changes were made to the free and reduced-cost lunch proposal. Heading into the meeting Monday, a school had to be 10 percent above the state average (about 43 percent) to qualify and a school’s enrollment number would drop based on that percentage (if a school has 58 percent free and reduced lunch, its enrollment number would drop 15 percent). This was changed, and schools that are any percentage above the state average could qualify to use the number to change its enrollment number (a school with 44 percent would drop 1 percent and so on).

The second change made it so this amendment impacts only schools in 4A to 1A classifications. The Class 2B and 1B schools successfully made the case that dropping down based on free and reduced lunch would negatively impact competitive balance in the state’s smallest schools.

The proposal caps out at 40 percent and a school can only drop one classification.

“The data now shows to be involved and have some opportunity to be competitive is to address the socioeconomic situation in our communities,” Colbrese said. “I think that amendment does that.”

The WIAA isn’t the first state association to try to use socioeconomic factors to try and achieve competitive balance. Minnesota, Ohio and Oregon have tried similar methods.

The vote to change how classifications are figured returns to the system in use before 2007 when the Representative Assembly made an effort to balance the classifications. This new system will throw the classifications into unbalance, which can make it harder to qualify for state tournaments for some classifications.

The WIAA Executive Board is planning to address this by discussing changing the size of the field (which has traditionally been 16 teams) in a state tournament to factor in the size of the classifications. Colbrese said discussions would likely begin in the spring.

The new hard-number classifications will break down like this:

* Class 4A: 1,300-plus

* Class 3A: 1,299-900

* Class 2A: 899-450

* Class 1A: 449-225

* Class 2B: 224-105

* Class 1B: 104-1

Counts on the next four-year enrollment cycle will begin next month.

Both votes passed easily. The classification amendment passed 31-3 and the free-and-reduced-lunch amendment passed 28-7.

“You really don’t know until you get the reps in the room and create a dialogue,” said Executive Board member Greg Whitmore, who is the athletic director at Lind-Ritzville High School. “And I heard some opinions change through that dialogue.”