by Aaron Garcia
A new wrinkle in the unfolding drama surrounding Charlotte Catholic High School’s athletic department emerged this week, as the school’s financial-aid practices came into question by the N.C. High School Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for public high school sports.
On April 12, six Rowan County schools requested an amendment to the NCHSAA’s constitution that would remove the state’s three non-boarding parochial schools – Charlotte Catholic, Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons and Kernersville’s Bishop McGuinness – from the organization because of their lack of territorial boundaries, which allows the schools to draw athletes from larger areas than their public-school counterparts.
Three-fourths of the NCHSAA’s 390 member schools would have to vote in favor of changing the constitution before the Catholic schools could be removed, and all votes were due by noon on April 24.
Charlotte Catholic is expected to learn the results of the voting on May 3, a day after the NCHSAA’s executive board meeting in Chapel Hill. However NCHSAA Executive Director Davis Whitfield said he couldn’t put a timetable on when the results of the financial-aid review would be revealed.
Charlotte Catholic principal Jerry Healy said that after the initial issue surrounding the schools’ participation in the NCHSAA came to light, questions regarding Charlotte Catholic’s financial-aid practices surfaced. Healy said he was notified by the NCHSAA on April 18 that it also would be reviewing the aid awarded to students and, more specific, student-athletes. The investigation would be separate from the April 24 vote.
Healy acknowledged that Charlotte Catholic does award need-based financial aid but added that the process does not originate at the school but rather with an independent, third-party financial evaluator located in Ohio. The results, which are only identified by a serial number specific to the family requesting the aid, are then sent to Mecklenburg Area Catholic Schools’ downtown office. Healy said that MACS then notifies the family of financial assistance available.
The process, said Healy, ensures that the school does not give special consideration to student-athletes or any other students because of the confidential nature of the process.
“Once (MACS) gets all the information they need, then they send for us to meet with the families,” said Healy. “But prior to that, we don’t know (anything about the recipient). We don’t know who’s coming, we don’t know if people play sports.”
On its website, the NCHSAA states that “parochial non-boarding schools, in addition to subscribing to the general rules of the NCHSAA, must agree to adhere to the following regulations: (a) an all-male student body shall have its enrollment doubled for classification purposes; (b) a student must have been in attendance for the two most recent semesters before being eligible for athletics; and (c) athletes shall not be given scholarship aid or other financial consideration.”
While the rule might appear cut-and-dried, Healy said the distinction has always been in the fact that the funds awarded to the qualifying students are collected from the Mecklenburg-area Catholic parishes, not the school itself. The process, said Healy, gives the school and its administrators a needed level of separation to remain compliant with the NCHSAA.
“I think that makes a major difference,” said Healy. “That was (former NCHSAA Executive Director) Charlie Adams’ interpretation: As long as the money did not come directly from the school, it was OK. That protects the (NCHSAA) and keeps us from saying, ‘OK, we’re going to give you this because we need you as a football player.’
“I think (the NCHSAA wants) to interpret it as any help given is financial aid,” Healy continued. “We have never interpreted it that way; we’ve always interpreted it as you don’t give scholarships for athletics. That’s been the bottom line, and that’s the whole issue – we do not give scholarships for athletics. Never have, never will.”
Whitfield, the NCHSAA’s current executive director, said the organization is working to better understand Catholic’s situation in relation to how it awards the aid, which could make a big difference in how the NCHSAA rules.
“I don’t know that anything has changed, necessarily,” said Whitfield. “I think what we’re trying to make sure we understand is when we say ‘financial aid.’ exactly what does that mean to these non-boarding parochial schools and try to understand them a little bit better. We’ve asked the schools for some additional information to really dive into the process and provide us with a full accounting of how that’s done, what’s the process and how it’s awarded.
“Aid is aid,” added Whitfield. “Is it monetary aid? Is it some other form of aid that comes in? We’ve got to take a look at those (factors) and then evaluate whether that is just for students, or student-athletes. Is it for everyone? Does that change? How is that interpreted? So, again, we have a lot of facets to look through and understand before we can determine an outcome on this.”
While Whitfield said he anticipates the subject will be a topic of discussion at the NCHSAA’s executive board meeting on May 1, he declined to put a timetable on when a decision could come.
“One of the things we’re finding out is Catholic education and the way it works is really mirrored to even the collegiate setting. When we talk about athletes, I’m not certain we can pinpoint that (the ones affected are) just athletes,” said Whitfield in regard to how the aid is distributed. “We want to make sure we’re fair in this case, so I think that’s why we’re wanting to make sure that we take our time and make sure that we understand their point of view as it relates to this and how it applies to our by-laws to make sure we’re being fair to all parties.”
Several states across the nation allow parochial schools to compete within public-school leagues. Whitfield said the NCHSAA was aware of that and would take it into account in Charlotte Catholic’s case.
“But as we do in most cases, we have to look at what’s best for North Carolina,” Whitfield said. “In some instances, we do look at what other states do and in some situations try to mirror or emulate some of their processes because we think they’re the best for North Carolina. In other cases, we sometimes have that information, but we may go an entirely different route. I would say we do have that information and that will be one thing we discuss.”
Healy said the atmosphere has remained upbeat around the Charlotte Catholic campus and that the parents “have been very good.”
“I think they trust the system, and I think they trust that people will truly recognize who we are and how we conduct ourselves,” said Healy.
Healy, however, feared that roughly two weeks wasn’t enough time for the Catholic schools to adequately plead their case before the May 1 board meeting.
“(The process) has been a pain,” said Healy. “You start (with the boundary complaints), and then you’re defending yourself from something you didn’t do wrong. It’s almost like you’re guilty until proven innocent.”
The principal also is worried about the potential slippery slope that could accompany the school’s financial-aid review. For example, MACS awards a tuition break to families with multiple siblings within the system.
“In the past, the fourth child or more would’ve been free,” said Healy. “Now, how are (NCHSAA officials) going to interpret that? Are they going to start getting involved with how much tuition we can charge and how much we can give?”
Healy also added that while legal action is a possible recourse, depending on the outcome, he is confident Charlotte Catholic has followed the letter of the NCHSAA’s laws.
“I’ve always felt like we were in compliance,” said Healy. “We’ve done everything we’ve been asked to do, and we’ve been above board about everything.”