Jimmy Noonan heard the grumblings for years from his peers around the state. The complaints came from the same group of people — the coaches, athletic directors and principals from the small schools in rural towns across South Carolina.
For decades, the pride of those small communities rested on the shoulders of their high school teams which often dominated the high school sports landscape. With the emergence and popularity of charter and magnet schools, those small towns have seen their dominance in high school athletics fade to distant memories.
As the head football coach at Wando High School — the largest high school in South Carolina with more than 4,000 students — Noonan could only shrug when those small schools would protest about magnet, charter and private schools dominating the athletic fields they had once controlled.
That was until three years ago, when Oceanside Collegiate Academy opened its doors in Noonan's Mount Pleasant backyard, just 2 miles from the Wando campus.
As athletes began to leave Wando for Oceanside Collegiate, Noonan couldn’t ignore the issue any longer.
“Nobody is questioning the legitimacy of a charter school or magnet school or even private schools being members of the (S.C.) High School League,” said Noonan, whose team competes at the Class AAAAA level. “They present a loophole, in my opinion, for these athletic magnet schools that have become prevalent around the country.”
Oceanside Collegiate is a charter school that emphasizes its athletic programs. Students typically spend half their day in class and the other half training and practicing.
Oceanside Collegiate athletic director and head football coach Chad Grier believes his school and charter schools like it are being unfairly targeted. He said Noonan has a personal vendetta against Oceanside because the school has been successful in football over the past two seasons.
“Magnet schools and private schools are different from what we’re doing at Oceanside and to lump us in with them isn’t fair,” Grier said. “We’re a public school with public taxpaying students. This notion that we’re something that we’re not is ridiculous. Coach Noonan thinks we are recruiting and taking players from him and that’s just not true.
“I have never said one negative word about Wando. We wish them well, we always have. We’re the one being attacked. This is one school’s problem. This is about Wando having a problem with Oceanside having success.”
The drama unfolding between the two Mount Pleasant schools is a microcosm of what is happening across the state. It's a debate that has the attention of the S.C. High School League, which is feeling pressure from both sides as it considers the next reclassification process for all schools in the state. Some rural schools would like to see the high school league use enrollment multipliers or even hold separate playoff brackets for charter and private schools to help even the playing field.
What happens in the next few months will determine the future of charter/private schools and could fundamentally reshape high school athletics in the state.
The Bishop England factor
While charter schools like Oceanside Collegiate have only recently become a factor in the traditional vs. nontraditional schools, Bishop England has flexed its collective muscle for years.
Bishop England, a Catholic school located on Daniel Island, is arguably the best athletic program in the state. MaxPreps, a national high school website, ranks Bishop England the No. 1 high school sports program in the nation among medium-sized schools (Oceanside is ranked No. 5 nationally among small schools).
Two years after winning back-to-back state titles in football at the Class AA level, the Bishops were moved up to Class AAA for the 2016-17 season. Bishop England athletic director Paul Runey was not happy about the move and bristles at the notion the school might have to move up another classification or compete in separate playoffs. Bishop England has about 600 students, one of the lowest enrollments among Class AAA schools.
“I think a lot of it is just jealousy on the part of other schools,” Runey said. “Look, if you want to give everyone a trophy, then just do it. We play by the same rules as everyone else.”
Runey has been fighting this battle for years, and hearing the same accusations along the way. Critics of the school say Bishop England recruits athletes and deliberately keeps its enrollment down so it can compete at a lower classification.
“We don’t recruit or offer scholarships,” Runey said. “About 95 percent of our budget comes from tuition. I can assure you if 100 students want to come to BE we’d let them in because that’s one million dollars to our budget. We certainly don’t hold our enrollment down so we can put a one hundred dollar trophy in our trophy case. That’s just ridiculous.”
Since joining the Class AAA ranks, Bishop England has continued to steamroll some of it's opponents. The Bishops baseball team outscored its first two playoff opponents — Edisto and Loris — by a combined score of 28-0. The Bishops' boys soccer team trounced Edisto, 13-1, in the opening round of the playoffs, while the girls lacrosse team beat May River and Bluffton by a combined score of 42-3 on its way to a state title.
Bishop England has won 24 state titles in 12 different sports (including baseball, basketball and volleyball) since the reclassification.
Charter schools vs. traditional schools
The tension between charter/private schools and traditional schools in South Carolina has been mainly relegated to the lower divisions and is most pronounced at the Class AA level.
In 2010, traditional schools (which draw students from specific geographic boundaries) won 14 of 18 state titles in Class AA. Last year, those schools won just five of 19 state championships. Since 2017, charter, magnet and private schools have won 42 of 57 state titles (74 percent), despite making up less than 20 percent of schools at the Class AA level.
The dispute isn’t unique to South Carolina. Pennsylvania, which has a high number of parochial schools in its association, has been wrestling with this issue since the mid-1980s and still has no solutions.
High school athletic associations in Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Florida have used multiplier formulas or have created separate state playoffs to appease traditional schools and help make the playing fields more balanced and competitive.
Bamberg and towns like it have seen their populations shrink over the past 20 years. Bamberg’s population was 3,243 in 2018, a decrease of almost 18 percent since 1990. The school, which competes at the Class AA level, has just 373 students to pick from when fielding athletic teams.
“We just don’t have a chance against some of these schools,” said Bamberg-Ehrhardt athletic director and head football coach Robert Williams. “Take a school like Oceanside or Bishop England. They can get kids from anywhere in Mount Pleasant or Charleston County. They are getting kids from an area that’s population is between 250,000 to 300,000.”
As president of the S.C. Football Coaches Association, Noonan sent an email to all of the organization’s coaches this summer asking for information and opinions regarding the growing number of charter schools.
“The small-town schools can’t compete against these magnet athletic schools,” Noonan said. “I was looking for feedback on how to level the playing field and make sure the rules were consistent across the board.”
The email created a firestorm of debate among athletic directors and coaches that even Noonan didn’t anticipate. In less than week, Noonan had received more than 30 responses from athletic directors, coaches and principals from Bluffton to Spartanburg.
"It definitely touched a nerve with folks," Noonan said.
The responses generally fell into two camps: Those that want charter/private schools to remain in their current classifications, and those who want to see those schools put into a classification of their own or moved up using a multiplier formula based on the school’s enrollment.
“We have been feeling the effects of private and charter schools for years and have often felt helpless trying to fight their impact on the smaller schools,” said Andrew Jackson High School Athletic Director Jimbo Barton in an email to Noonan. “In the past five or six years, we personally have lost to the likes of Bishop England and Gray Collegiate (in Columbia) in championship games and have felt we were not playing teams of equal caliber.”
Pinnacle Charter School Management Group, which operates Oceanside, has two other schools in South Carolina — Gray Collegiate in Columbia and Legion Collegiate in Rock Hill, which opened its doors in August.
There are plans to open schools in the Greenville-Spartanburg area in the future.
“Let’s see how the bigger schools in the Upstate feel when a charter school opens up in their backyards,” Noonan said.
Multipliers and separate playoffs
The two most common suggestions Noonan received were the use a multiplier formula for charter/private schools or have them compete in their own state playoffs.
Georgia and Tennessee are among more than a dozen states using multipliers from 1.5 to 2.0 for classification purposes. Here's how it works: Oceanside currently has about 600 students. Using a multiplier of 1.5, the school's enrollment would be listed as 900, which would push the school up to Class AAA or possibly even Class AAAA next fall.
“I don’t think it’s fair to make us play up a classification,” Grier said. “I don’t see what advantages we have. We don’t have a stadium, our practice field is next to a swamp. I don’t understand what their justification would be.”
Traditional schools justify using a multiplier formula for charter schools like Oceanside because those schools have higher athletic participation rates among their students. About 60 percent of the students at Oceanside are members of athletic teams, while that number is 25 to 30 percent at traditional schools.
“We would support a proposal based on the enrollment multiplier of 2.0,” said Landrum athletic director Mike Gentry in an email to Noonan.
Bishop England, which went from Class AA to Class AAA in the last realignment, would also likely jump to Class AAAA if a multiplier were put into effect.
The other popular solution is to have the charter/private schools compete in their own playoff brackets, separate from the traditional schools. In most scenarios, charter and private schools still would compete in the same regions and against the same teams, but have their own playoffs after the regular season.
“That seems to have the most support among the coaches that have reached out to me,” Noonan said. “They would stay in the same geographical regions that they’re in now, but in the playoffs compete against similar schools. I think that’s fair for everyone.”
A subcommittee within the SCHSL has been formed to study the issue and plans to present its suggestions within the next few months. The high school league hopes to have a preliminary realignment plan by mid-December and a finished product by February.
“If the membership thinks it’s an issue, then it’s an issue,” said S.C. High School League Executive Director Jerome Singleton. “I’ve had coaches and athletic directors voice their opinions, but nothing had ever formally been presented. If the membership wants to change the rules, then we’ll change the rules.”
The SCHSL subcommittee has already determined that only charter and private schools would be subject to either the multiplier rule or have separate playoffs. Magnet schools, like Academic Magnet or Military Magnet, which won state titles in tennis, girls soccer and track in the last two years, would not be included.
“I don’t see how you could not include magnet schools in this discussion,” said Bishop England's Runey. “It just doesn’t make sense. There is almost no difference between magnet schools and charter or private schools.”
Runey said Bishop England will take legal action if the high school league moves the school up another classification or changes its status for playoffs.
Private schools in Alabama and several other states have challenged and won cases against high school associations after they were reclassified using multipliers or put in separate playoffs.
When the SCHSL releases its realigned classifications in February, its a safe bet there will be backlash from one side or the other.