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ON HIGH SCHOOLS

Transparency doesn't seem to matter to Santa Margarita High

The school and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange are trying to block the release of the punishment of football Coach Harry Welch for a recruiting violation. In doing so, they have made a minor story a major issue.

June 13, 2010|Eric Sondheimer

Transparency and openness are virtues that parents and students expect from their high school sports programs, but Santa Margarita and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange apparently haven't gotten the message.

They are seeking to block the CIF Southern Section from releasing information regarding the punishment imposed on football Coach Harry Welch for a recruiting violation.

The violation stemmed from an open house Santa Margarita held at its new athletic facility on March 31. The section ruled that Welch and Santa Margarita were in violation of Blue Book rule 510 — undue influence — because Welch used the occasion to meet with a group of parents from a local youth football program.

The section recommended that Santa Margarita be banned from the playoffs for a year, but the school offered a compromise that was accepted. The Times made a request in April under the California Public Records Act seeking access to Southern Section documents and information detailing the punishment.

Santa Margarita objected, saying it is not subject to the California Public Records Act because it is a private school, and that the Southern Section shouldn't be compelled to grant access either. An attorney representing the school and the diocese notified the Southern Section it would be seeking a temporary restraining order in an Orange County court on June 28 to block the request.

It raises the question: What is the school trying to keep secret?

"It's done, why hide it?" Newhall Hart football Coach Mike Herrington said.

This would have been a three-paragraph story if Santa Margarita and the Southern Section had simply stated what they agreed to. There is speculation that Welch's punishment involves a one-week suspension from practice this fall and missing the first game, but that couldn't be verified because neither the school nor the section is talking.

If that's the penalty, announce it, then everyone can move on and wish the Eagles good luck. That's what the NCAA does.

But Santa Margarita is using the private school defense, claiming such information is "privileged" — a protection asserted in court cases the diocese is involved with.

It's trying to hide from the consequences of violating a rule that it must follow as a member of an organization that oversees the sports programs for 579 public and private schools in Southern California.

Marie Ishida, the executive director of the CIF, said schools are concerned about releasing disciplinary action to sections in writing if it's going to become public.

"I think that's the crux right there, that the self-reporting will probably go away and/or the schools would just verbally report it rather than put it in writing," she said.

But the public has a right to know what action is taken against a school when it breaks a recruiting rule, especially because there is a continuing debate whether private schools have gained too much of an advantage over public schools with their unlimited attendance boundaries.

On June 3, the attorney representing Santa Margarita and the diocese, Allison E. Burns, along with the Southern Section attorney, Diane Marshall-Freeman, and the attorney representing The Times, Karlene Goller, held a conference call trying to work out a compromise. The Times suggested revealing the punishment agreed to by the Southern Section and removing the name and title of any person or persons, if necessary.

That was rejected by Santa Margarita. And the diocese intends to ask a court to enjoin the section from disclosing any information concerning the penalty.

This comes as a bill, AB 352, sponsored by Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks), is working its way through the state Legislature. It would declare the Legislature's intent that the CIF comply with the California Public Records Act.

Currently, the CIF's by-laws require compliance with California's open meeting law, the Brown Act. That law guarantees the public access to the meetings of governing bodies or local public agencies. The CIF does not require the same openness in written correspondence.

"We feel it's our responsibility to make sure the CIF is accountable to the public," said Samuel Chung, the legislative director for Strickland.

Ishida said the CIF believes "transparency is very important."

So what's the problem?

Private schools like most of the benefits associated with competing in sports against public schools but not the requirement of revealing what happens when somebody breaks a rule — a requirement public schools have to follow.

It's in the public interest to always know the truth.

eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATsondheimer

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