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Aurora lawmaker seeking transparency from IHSA

Published: Thursday, April 3, 2014 10:26 p.m. CDT

Linda Chapa LaVia insists she’s not on a witch hunt in asking the Illinois High School Association to be more open about how it conducts its business.

The Democratic State Representative from Aurora believes that a not-for-profit organization that took in $10.9 million in revenue in 2011, according to its 990 tax form, should be more forthcoming about where its money is coming from and how it is being spent.

Chapa LaVia recently introduced House Resolution 895, which seeks to hold public subject matter hearings searching for answers from IHSA officials. Topics, the resolution reads, include how the IHSA administers and funds high school sports, how it protects prep athletes as well as an explanation of the costs and income associated with the administration of high school sports.

The IHSA, founded in 1900, operates as a 501(c)(3) and is therefore exempt from making its financial information public. The IHSA maintains that the contracts Chapa LaVia characterizes as “exclusive” should remain private. Because of its not-for-profit status, the IHSA says it is exempt from state laws that make its business public. The governing body, Chapa LaVia said, cannot even be investigated by state auditor general Bob Holland.

But that’s just where Chapa LaVia’s concerns begin. Although a House Resolution is nonbinding, Chapa LaVia – along with officials from the Illinois Press Association and Illinois Broadcasters Association – believe it’s time for the IHSA to be accountable to the state it serves.

“I hope they don’t have anything to hide,” Chapa LaVia said Tuesday. “But that’s not my purpose – it’s not a witch hunt. I’m just looking for some knowledge and some transparency.”

The IHSA issued a statement regarding Chapa LaVia’s resolution March 14, stating it had no idea what concerns Chapa LaVia might have because the legislator had not contacted its office. Chapa LaVia confirmed that she had not reached out to the IHSA, but said she has meetings with executive director Marty Hickman scheduled for the near future.

The IHSA statement touted that it offers more than 300,000 students each year the opportunity to participate in high school sports. It stated it has eliminated membership dues, worked to make high school sports safer and balanced its budget. In addition, the IHSA wrote that it has funded its pension and “shared millions of dollars with its members.”

Exactly how much the IHSA has handed back to schools, however, remains unknown. IHSA spokesman Matt Troha did not respond to an email seeking information about IHSA contracts. Hickman was not available for comment and did not respond to an email.

According to its 2011 tax return, the IHSA took in almost $8 million in revenue from its state tournaments. The IHSA also reported it took in $212,553 in souvenir income – money that Chapa LaVia said taxpayers spent after paying to gain admission to IHSA events, giving them a right to know where that money is going.

The same tax return stated that the IHSA spent $10.8 million in 2011, including more than $5 million on state tournaments.

The second biggest expenditure came in the form of $996,000 in compensation for employees and officers and more than $850,000 on its pension fund.

Schools that host IHSA tournaments receive 20 percent of the gate as well as a financial guarantee that varies on what level of the postseason tournament the school hosts.

The IHSA pays game officials and provides balls and other sporting equipment for 10 tournaments – all of which comes from a contract with Washington state-based Baiden.

Next year, the IHSA will return to a contract with Wilson to provide the equipment.

But what the IHSA does with the millions of dollars it makes off state tournaments remains a mystery, causing concern among entities that deal with the IHSA on a regular basis. In a news release issued by the IPA on Wednesday, executive director Dennis DeRossett said the the IHSA is “clearly profiting off of public, taxpayer-funded events.”

“It should be public knowledge how much revenue is being generated by these events and other exclusive arrangements along with what percentage or amount of that revenue is being remitted back to local school districts,” DeRossett said in the release.

In addition, the IHSA controls how media companies distribute video coverage of playoff and championship games. After entering a partnership with the National Federation of High Schools in July, fans who don’t have cable services with Comcast were charged a $9.95 pay-per-view fee to view state playoff events.

The IHSA had not charged for such video content for the previous 10 years. Troha said last year the IHSA receives a flat fee as part of the partnership.

Playoff games webcast on the NFHS site are blocked from other media outlets after a Sangamon County judge’s ruling in 2012 on the matter. Several media outlets – including the Northwest Herald – sued the IHSA in 2008 after it denied photographers access to the field during the state football championships. The litigation was later dropped.

Chapa LaVia said Tuesday that her introducing the resolution should not be misconstrued as an accusation of IHSA wrong-doing. She said she brought the resolution as a way of getting the IHSA’s attention, simply asking that it offer more information than it currently offers to the public.

“There’s this regalness to them that it’s almost like, ‘How dare we request anything?’” Chapa LaVia said. “[It’s like] they’re doing us a favor.”

Whether anything will come out of the resolution is yet to be seen. But Sandy Macfarland, who owns the Chicago Daily Bulletin and who is the chairman of the IPA’s government relations committee, said in the IPA’s news release that something needs to be done – including the Illinois General Assembly initiating legislation.

“I think it’s time we have a discussion concerning the financial and public policy implications of continuing to outsource a profitable and easily sold product – in this case, high school sports – to a seemingly unaccountable third party,” Macfarland said.

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