In Florida and Pennsylvania, the private, not-for-profit organizations that oversee high school sports operate like governments in terms of openness.
They let the public see sponsorship contracts, vendor payments and other records, just as a government agency would have to do under those states’ “sunshine” laws.
In Texas, the agency that oversees high school athletics operates as part of the University of Texas at Austin. So its records are open to the public, too.
Now, some Illinois lawmakers — as well as newspaper and broadcasting groups — say the private, not-for-profit Illinois High School Association, which oversees 35 high school sports and activities statewide, should be held to the same transparency standard.
The push comes as legislators and some school officials have questioned whether high schools should be getting a bigger share of the nearly $11 million the IHSA generates each year through ticket sales, sponsorship deals and other money-making aspects of high school sports.
Helping to fuel the scrutiny, the IHSA has seen its costs for salaries and benefits rise even as revenues and profits have fallen at its marquee event, the state boys basketball tournament, the Chicago Sun-Times has reported. More than a quarter of the association’s 25 employees get more than $110,000 a year in salary and benefits.
As a not-for-profit, the IHSA says it doesn’t fall under the state’s Freedom of Information Act, though more than 80 percent of its members are public schools.
The IHSA isn’t the only high school sports sanctioning body that’s faced calls to open its records to the public. In April, a Tennessee state appeals court upheld a decision that the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association is subject to that state’s public records law as the “functional equivalent of a government agency.” In March, South Dakota legislators enacted a law making the South Dakota High School Activities Association subject to that state’s open-records law.
In a 2008 rewrite of its open-records law, the Pennsylvania legislature specifically included state-affiliated entities like the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association because the group is comprised of all public high schools outside Philadelphia and is funded “ultimately by the commonwealth’s taxpayers,” including from ticket sales at public-school facilities, says Terry Mutchler, head of Pennsylvania’s office of open records.
“There is a lot of taxpayer money that flows through this institution, and any time you spend a dime’s worth of taxpayer money, citizens should be able to track it,” Mutchler says.
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Officials with some other states’ athletic associations say they comply with open-records laws to be accountable to the public, even though they aren’t required to.
The New York State Public High School Athletic Association has “received conflicting responses to this question when posed to the state of New York,” says Robert Zayas, the organization’s exective director. “It is our opinion that we do not have to comply with [freedom of information] and open meetings [laws], however we have complied with these items in the past.”
Similarly, David Anderson, executive director of the Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association, says, “When I get a Freedom of Information Act request, I can’t remember a time I didn’t provide the information — even though we are not required to.”
Officials with the Illinois Press Association, of which the Sun-Times is a member, said they believe the IHSA should reveal more about how it operates during a legislative hearing in May in Springfield. A second hearing is to be held in the Chicago area in September.
To get an idea of how the IHSA stacks up on transparency and other issues, the Sun-Times looked at sports governing bodies in the nation’s six most populous states — Illinois ranks fifth — as well as four neighboring states.
Most of the data comes from the most recent reports the not-for-profit groups must file with the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their tax-free status. The exception was Texas, where the high school sports authority is a public agency that produces yearly reports with similar information.
In some large states, such as California and New York, the sports governing bodies are an umbrella group for other not-for-profits that oversee athletics in certain regions. The Sun-Times didn’t include the regional groups in its analysis, which found:
- Of the 12 associations — Iowa has separate ones for girls’ and boys’ sports — seven say they either are subject to or voluntarily comply with state open-records laws.
- At $10.8 million, the IHSA was No. 3 in terms of revenue from ticket sales, sponsorships, royalties, broadcast rights and other money-making activities, according to records for the 2012-13 school year.
- The IHSA’s executive director, Marty Hickman, had the fourth-highest total salary and benefits — $221,368. If you also consider deferred compensation, Hickman’s overall compensation totaled $299,286 — tops among the 13 sports governing bodies reviewed.
- At nearly $3.1 million, the IHSA, headquartered in Bloomington, ranked second only to Texas in spending on salaries and benefits. That was fueled in part by $1.3 million spent on “pension plan accruals” and other retirement-related costs, which were hundreds of thousands of dollars higher than for the other not-for-profit governing bodies.
IHSA officials declined to provide records regarding their 401(k), deferred compensation and pension costs. In a prepared statement, Hickman says the association froze its pension plan in 2008 because of escalating costs and replaced it with a 401(k) plan and a separate deferred-compensation plan “intended to ensure that those few employees eligible for the plan would receive approximately the same overall benefit upon retirement they would have received from the [pension] plan had it not been preemptively frozen in 2008.”
According to Hickman, the figure the IHSA reports to the IRS regarding retirement spending reflects “the present value of future benefits,” not cash paid into those plans.
Still, the IHSA’s $1.3 million figure for retirement spending tops the not-for-profit governing bodies reviewed and was 75 percent higher than the Michigan High School Athletic Association, which ranked No. 3 in retirement-related costs at $741,792 in 2012-13.