Executive Director Explains State’s Fact-Finding Process When Considering Sports Officials’ Contract - 27 East

Executive Director Explains State’s Fact-Finding Process When Considering Sports Officials’ Contract

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The New York State Public High School Athletic Association is mediating a fact-finding process between Section XI and officials Thursday, August 17, with the hope that the two sides can come to an agreement.

The New York State Public High School Athletic Association is mediating a fact-finding process between Section XI and officials Thursday, August 17, with the hope that the two sides can come to an agreement.

Desirée Keegan on Aug 15, 2023

“The fact-finding process is not binding.”

That’s what New York State Public High School Athletic Association Executive Director Robert Zayas wants others to know when it comes to the procedure regarding contract negotiations with Suffolk County scholastic sports officials. The fact-finding process, which calls in an independent group to review negotiations to this point, evaluate past contracts and make a recommendation, begins August 17.

“It will not automatically settle things,” Zayas said Friday. “Each party will have the opportunity to select three people to represent them or speak on their behalf, and ultimately, we’ll select one of those three that will serve on the fact-finding committee. That fact-finding committee will meet, listen to both sides and render a recommendation for what the outcome or solution could be.”

If officials and Section XI, the governing body of scholastic sports in Suffolk County, accept the recommendation, the issue is resolved. If not, the next step is arbitration.

“We expedite the fact-finding process — we go as quickly as we can because we realize time is certainly of the essence,” Zayas said. “But arbitration is more of a time-consuming and expensive process, though it rarely gets to that.”

Section XI and its referees had been unable to reach a deal by the old agreement’s June 30 expiration date. On July 21, a proposed three-year agreement between the officials’ negotiating committee and Section XI’s Executive Board was ratified, but then voted down by the President’s Council of Suffolk County Officials, 44-3, on July 25. The three-year deal called for incremental raises of 2 percent in the first year and 3 percent in the second and third years, and for a pay increase for playoff officials and rules interpreters for each sport. Nassau County referees signed a three-year contract in 2022 that Section XIII Executive Director Pat Pizzarelli said is comparable to what Suffolk officials were making last year.

“This will only hurt our student-athletes when games are delayed or played with minimal officials,” Section XI Executive Director Tom Combs said. “Hopefully, all things get worked out and we are playing our contests on August 28 with a full complement of officials overseeing them.”

Teams need six practices to be eligible to compete, and the first nonleague games for boys and girls soccer, volleyball and field hockey are scheduled for August 28. Because Suffolk County officials are not used for tennis and cross country meets, those sports remain unaffected.

While there is no drop-dead date that would impact the start of fall sports, Combs said once a decision is reached, officials will be required to submit their availability before Section XI’s sport coordinators can start assigning them to contests. Availability was originally needed by June 1, but last month, Combs said only 60 of the over 1,300 officials had done so, and several have even rescinded their availability until an agreement is reached. Combs said his office schedules a little more than 35,000 high school varsity and junior varsity, as well as middle school contests each year, and added that fall is the busiest season, with more teams competing in the fall than in any other.

The cost for Suffolk County officials is estimated to be around $3.4 million for the upcoming school year. Initially, officials asked for a 33-percent raise, then dropped that to 10 percent. It was an ask Combs said Section XI was not comfortable with, especially since the organization is a nonprofit, meaning school districts foot the bill. Suffolk County’s referees are currently the highest paid not just in New York, but the entire Northeast, and are in the top 10 percent in the country, Combs said. Section XI, as recently as last week, offered 3- and 4-percent incremental increases in a new proposal, which officials also rejected.

“One key aspect that I believe should be included in our contract terms is the consideration of consumer price index values based on the cost of living,” Suffolk County Football Officials Association President Marc Negrin said in a statement on behalf of the President’s Council of Suffolk County Officials. “We must account for this factor to ensure our financial well-being and maintain a sustainable livelihood. While some may argue that we are already the highest paid officials in the state, this argument lacks relevance when considering the cost of living here in Suffolk County.”

Annual pay increases were also included in the previous five-year contract that went into effect on July 1, 2018. Referees and umpires for varsity baseball, basketball, gymnastics, lacrosse, soccer and softball made $124 per game in the first year of the deal and $131 last season. Varsity football officials made $127 per game in the first year and $134 in the last. Varsity wrestling referees were paid $139 this past fall.

Another facet of the decision-making regards safety. Officials feel threatened by fans and coaches, and have requested stricter restrictions for behavior at games. Combs said that fear was the driving force behind a newly-adopted rule that ejects unruly fans, coaches and players, and even bans anyone penalized from the next scheduled contest, but it is up to school district administration to enforce the rules.

“As the athletic director at Southampton, it is my job to make sure our coaches are treating officials with respect, even if they disagree with a call,” Southampton Athletic Director Darren Phillips said. “The same goes for parents or fans who come to games and feel they can berate or use profanity toward officials. Instead, we need to thank them, because without officials, there are no games. Officials are doing this tough job because they love the game and want to provide student athletes the opportunity to play. They deserve better, and we need to keep reminding our coaches, players and fans that sportsmanship matters.”

Zayas said the state dealt with a similar contract dispute with Western New York officials at the beginning of last school year.

“Unfortunately, these instances are becoming more common,” he said. “We’re already at a deficit for officials in New York state, and that’s not a unique problem — every state in the country is working on official recruit and retention; that’s going to continue to be a problem. We’re actively trying to find more people to officiate. But if there are no officials, then we can’t have games.”

Officials need to be certified. They undergo background checks and training, so from a liability standpoint, referees, umpires and judges are needed for contests to occur. So, if officials still can’t come to terms or if there’s a lack of willing officials following arbitration, if negotiations reach that point, Zayas said the state would begin to seek officials from other areas of New York. He said he does not foresee needing to cancel the season altogether.

“That’s something that I can’t even fathom occurring. We would try to figure it out,” the executive director said. “We’re hoping it won’t get to a point where kids are negatively impacted by these negotiations and not able to play, but that would be the worst-case scenario. We’re very aware that we need officials in order to provide these opportunities for student-athletes.”

Football teams need three games and all other team sports six contests to be eligible for the postseason, so even if there’s a delayed start and a shortened season takes effect, schools should still remain eligible for playoffs.

“Our goal as an association is to provide participation opportunities for students — that’s what we do. That’s our major focus as an association,” Zayas said. “We know children benefit, communities benefit and schools benefit when students have the opportunity to play, so anything that takes away from those participation opportunities is certainly concerning, and that’s the reason why we’re putting so much thought and attention and work and effort into trying to take care of this situation before it gets to the point where it could negatively impact the children.”

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