LANGLEY — Varsity Letters is presenting both sides of the debate leading up to the pivotal voting day on B.C. School Sports’ pioneering governance proposal, set for the association’s May 1 annual general meeting.
If passed by a two-thirds majority plus-one vote of the province’s eligible base of 460-plus athletic directors, all 19 of BCSS’ member sports — including football, wrestling, boys rugby, and boys and girls basketball, volleyball, track and field, cross-country and soccer — would be brought together wholly under the umbrella of the association’s administration.
For its part, B.C. School Sports has trumpeted the governance as a way to bring uniformity to its ranks.
Noted the BCSS within its most recent governance recommendation, sent to all athletic directors on Thursday: “We have 19 BCSS Sports Commissions, each operating at various levels of autonomy and each with different memberships, rules, processes and procedures.”
And therein lies the conflict.
Approval of the BCSS proposal would mean the immediate extinction of all of the various high school sports commissions in B.C., many of which are not simply collections of individuals but rather committed groups of coaches, teachers and administrators who have passed the torch through multiple generations while serving as the unpaid caretakers of their sport at the high school level in this province.
Today, Varsity Letters gets down in the trenches with three long-serving high school coaches, teachers and administrators, and it’s through their insights that we hope you gain a clearer picture of the high-stakes future of sport in our post-pandemic high schools over the coming decades.
First, let’s meet the voices:
Few could be more qualified to speak on behalf of B.C. School Sports’ governance proposal than its vice-president Brent Sweeney, a long-established co-head coach of both the fall-season senior boys and spring-season senior girls soccer teams at Tsawwassen’s South Delta Secondary.
Sweeney not only serves as South Delta’s athletic director, he is also the president of the newly-formed South Fraser zone, now in its second season representing high school sports in the Richmond, Surrey and Delta regions.
Walter van Halst is the commissioner of the B.C. Secondary Schools Rugby Union and a teacher at Surrey’s Lord Tweedsmuir Secondary.
A few seasons back, van Halst proved himself as something of a visionary, tweaking the rugby tiering system to provide more schools with the opportunity to compete for B.C. titles, thus re-energizing the entire sport at the high school level in this province.
On Thursday, van Halst followed the release of B.C. School Sports’ final version of the governance proposal to athletic directors and principals throughout the province with a letter of his own, this one endorsed by 14 other B.C. high school sports commissioners with the message for B.C.’s athletic directors to vote against the proposal on May 1.
One of those endorsing van Halst’s letter was Ken Dockendorf, the head coach of the senior boys varsity basketball team at Maple Ridge Secondary.
Dockendorf, one of the most invested head coaches in any sport in B.C. high school history is currently the president of the B.C. Boys High School Basketball Association.
Dockendorf completed his 50th season in the coaching ranks in 2019-20, and while denied the opportunity this season, he is determined to enter his second half-century of coaching when the 2021-22 season tips off in November.
(Editor’s note: All three subjects were interviewed separately, and none were informed that the other two would be a part of this story, and thus none of their comments are directed towards the others)
THE PROPOSED NEW STRUCTURE
Approval of the governance proposal would trigger a new rules-making body within B.C. School Sports in the form of a 54-member Legislative Assembly.
BCSS officials endorse the body’s merits for what they feel is a breadth of inclusivity at multiple levels, yet those opposing the governance are quick to point out that individual schools, who under the current model all have the right to vote on policy at the Annual General Meeting through their athletic directors, will have no such right under the proposed new model.
As mentioned, approval of the governance would reduce all of the 19 sport-specific commissions, including such time-honoured entities as the B.C. Secondary Schools Football Association, the B.C. High School Boys Basketball Association, the B.C. Secondary Schools Girls Basketball Association and the B.C. Secondary Schools Rugby Union, to entities exisiting in name only.
In their place, the new governance proposal will have a total of nine policy committees and five operating committees, all of whom sit under the legislative assembly.
Half of that 54-member assembly would be fashioned by representatives from the province’s nine different geographical zones, each of which would have three reps (all of which cannot identify as the same gender).
Also included are all nine members of BCSS’ Board of Directors, reps from eight of the nine policy committees, and a final group representing 10 other groups including the B.C. Teachers Federation, the Ministry of Education and the B.C. Schools Trustees’ Association.
For his part, Dockendorf felt that the sheer number of committees sitting beneath the legislative body would prove a hindrance in servicing various sports in an ideal manner.
“A bureaucratic nightmare,” he said, putting on his BCHSBBA president’s cap before continuing. “There are 14 committees and at some point, we would have to consult with 11 of them to get all of the decisions that we can currently make with nine people, all within the period of about one hour.
“It’s so overbearing and cumbersome,” he continued. “It’s like taking a pie that’s got 20 slices for all of the different sports and then further cutting them into 100 slices.”
Sweeney, however, offered a contrasting opinion on how the governance’s focus on uniformity would actually bring a level of simplicity to the equation, albeit from a different perspective.
“I am going to put on my athletic director’s cap here,” he began. “One of the things that makes life difficult for us as AD’s is the number of different sets of rules from sport to sport. Understanding what changes take place on a year-to-year basis, when the different AGMs happen for the various sports, if berthing and the path to provincials has changed… Having one body make those kinds of decisions and having the information distributed in a timely and really accessible way, that is a huge thing for ADs.”
Sweeney also celebrates the composition of a potential legislative assembly, arguing that its diversity has been a long time coming.
“There’s a place for (representation) from the Ministry of Education, the BCTF, the Principals and Vice-Principals Association,” he began. “Here I am as a coach and I have been through a number of job actions where extra-curricular sports is the first thing that gets suggested to be put on the side. We’ve had no relationship with the BCTF, so it’s a good thing to have someone to reach out to and speak with. Yet it is very intentional that there are more school- and zone-based individuals on the board than there are partners who for too long have been at arm’s-length at best.”
Yet Dockendorf insists that when it comes to having an actual sports-specific voice with the power to affect policy and change within the actual legislative assembly, too much is left to chance and thus the system falls short.
“So the people that are in this group of 27 (zone reps), who even knows what they are representing?” he said. “Do they have a real commitment to any certain sport? It’s a real hodgepodge of people.”
To clarify Dockendorf’s point, he says there is no guarantee what sports-specific background any of the three appointed representatives from each of the province’s nine zones will bring to the assembly.
EVERY VOICE COUNTS
To Walter van Halst, the potential loss of a school’s ability to vote for its best interest at the B.C. School Sports AGM is not to be taken lightly.
“Every school, whether independent or public, large or small, indigenous, multicultural, faith-based or whatever composition your school has… every school has it own culture and with this you’d be losing your own individual voice,” van Halst said.
“Take Lord Tweedsmuir and Earl Marriott, two large schools in the Surrey system,” he continued, before later looking to a pair of deeply-established Vancouver schools. “They are very different. Each school has its own culture and their own demographics and their own history. And then, who is going to fight for Killarney? Who is going to fight for Charles Tupper? Every school should have a voice in what is going on, because every school is affected by what is going on.”
In the new year, B.C. School Sports moved forward with an addition to its governance proposal, one which it felt demonstrated more clearly its understanding of the value and expertise that its longtime sports-specific commission members could bring should it gain a majority vote May 1.
And thus in the latest proposal 3.1 (linked at the bottom of this story) they have proposed the creation of a Sports Advisory Committees for each sport.
And while there has been transparency from the outset regarding the fact that the so-called SACs carry no official power to change policy, Sweeney says that their potential formation would represent a group whose concerns would not fall on deaf ears.
“As an example,” Sweeney begins, “boys basketball says ‘We want to have a two-year tiering cycle’ but they can’t make that decision on their own. They show us the work they’ve done, why they think it’s a good idea and they want to bring the motion forward. What we’ve done as a Board of Directors is made recommendations on AGM motions. By and large most of the proposals put forward by the commissions, we have supported, and I see a similar situation with the SAC.”
The latest governance states that each Sports Advisory Committee will be made up of 10 people. The acting commissioner of each current commission would be invited to chair their respective SAC, with one person appointed by each of the nine zones.
Dockendorf, however, has serious reservations about the effectiveness of just such committees.
“It’s clearly stated that it has no decision-making power,” he began. “There is just no way that they will be able to provide the same kind of services the commissions currently do. How can the B.C. high school boys and girls basketball, wrestling and volleyball championships be organized better that they currently are? I don’t see how they can do a better job.”
Sweeney and BCSS see things from a different perspective.
“The commissions have accrued power over the years, (but) they are standing committees of B.C. School Sports, and at the end of the day this is school-based sport,” he said.
“Increasingly, in our championships, we have individuals who are not associated with schools… we have people who are outside coaches. You have a situation where you have people that don’t necessarily have the broader-based picture in mind and are focussed on individual sports.
“So there definitely will be some decision-making and control taken away from commissions, but I think the positive aspect of that is the people who will now make those decisions are going to be athletic directors, they’re going to administrators, they are going to be people who have a broader landscape in mind as opposed to the nitty-gritty individual aspect of their sport,” continued Sweeney of what would transpire if the governance passes.
THE CRUX AT THE CROSSROADS
The letter sent out Thursday by boys’ rugby commissioner Walter van Halst, and endorsed by commissioners from 14 other B.C. high school sports (football and girls volleyball were notable exceptions), outlined the group’s reasons for opposing the new governance and concluded with the following:
“We urge you to VOTE AGAINST the proposal on May 1 so that the process to develop new governance is not rushed during a global pandemic and an appropriate level of consultation can take place.
“We invite BCSS to work in partnership to collectively develop a new model of governance that will create excitement about the future for student-athletic participation in this province.”
Dockendorf has studied the structure of the new governance, and he has says a common sentiment has emerged from those opposing it.
“They have tried to construct a model where each group cannot work independently,” he said.
“With this new system, I compare it to Donald Trump… how he basically worked as diligently as he could to remove democracy from the whole legislative process in the U.S. Everything he touched, he was trying to reduce the amount of democracy. That is what this thing does, too, because instead of 400 people (athletics directors) having a chance to vote, now there will be nine zones and only three representatives from each who represent all of the people in their zone.
“And no matter what the size (of the zone),” Dockendorf continued. “Vancouver might have 100 schools and the Kootenays might have 20, so democracy has just been shattered.”
NO EASY ANSWERS
Ken Dockendorf admits the B.C. Boys High School Basketball Association, some 10-to-12 years ago, was filled with a level of inner bickering that was stunting the group from reaching its full potential.
“So we set out with a goal to make our sport as democratic as possible, and we achieved it,” he said.
The results have helped lift the association, by anyone’s standard of measure, to their loftiest heights ever. Yet these days there has been a palpable swing in emotions with the potential to have its association dissolved of its power pending the results of the May 1 vote.
“It’s been time consuming, interesting, and challenging to get to the point where we are now,” Dockendorf said. “In terms of our championships, the venue, the whole operational menu… it’s the best it’s ever been.
“Now with our democracy and our equal opportunity, we have all four championships at the same site receiving equal treatment. So when you watch all those championships on Saturday, the team that wins the Single-A title thinks they just won the world championships, but so does the Double-A winner, the Triple-A winner and the Quad-A winner. We couldn’t have created a better format than we currently have. It’s the best of times and we’d certainly hate to see it go.”
Sweeney mutes the alarm bells.
“The main function of what commissions do now is run provincial championships,” he said, speaking towards how he would envision the future with a positive vote for the governance proposal. “Those individuals, we hope, will still take on those roles. The fear from some of the commissions is the unknown. What will the championships look like in the future? We anticipate they will look very similar to what we have now because our hope is that the same people will continue to run them.”
Right now, however, it’s about seven weeks until the votes will be cast and everything about the future of B.C. high school sports is surrounded by question marks.
For his part, van Halst has questions not only with the make-up of the potential new structure, but also the means in which the governance proposal been introduced.
“If it was me, and I was at the top of the pyramid, I would want as many people underneath working for free as I could get,” he said. “And I would say ‘OK, you go run golf, you go run track, you go run soccer… and by the way, what do you need?’ If there was new commission or a group doing something unethical or unsafe, OK, step in. But these are people who are knowledgeable and dedicated to their sport.
“They want to see the kids have the best experience possible,” he added. “They have more invested in this than anyone. With all due respect to the outside interest groups sitting on a panel that meets twice a year, how much knowledge and daily investment do they have?
“We may have the best (high school) championships in the country, and now it’s on the precipice for a lot of reasons,” he concluded. “The rise of club sports, the decline in teacher-coaches, the job action we’ve had for 10-to-15 years, and at the same time we have the COVID pandemic. Why at a time like this would you want to restructure things in a way that doesn’t make people feel empowered, that doesn’t make them feel valued?”
Both sides have come to the table with passionate viewpoints, and although each school’s vote will be cast by an athletic director or similarly-credentialed staff member, there is no shortage of opportunity for everyone to have their voice heard in some fashion.
Are you a parent with student-athletes currently engaged in the B.C. high school system, or just about set to enter it? Talk to a coach at your high school, ask your questions and have those passed on to the athletic director. Or have a chat with that athletic director yourself.
Same for the coaches, whether of the teaching or non-teaching variety, who have maybe not given this a lot of thought. What makes the best sense for the future of B.C. high school sports? Let your voice be heard.
Whichever way you want the vote to go, engage yourself in the process. There is a lot at stake and May 1 will get here a lot quicker than you think.
(Your thoughts are also welcome here. Leave a comment for other to read)
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