Should Maine’s Private High Schools Compete in their own Class?

Recently, the membership of the Maine Principals’ Association opted to divide its 138 basketball playing schools into five classes from four.  Since then I had an interesting conversation.  It was a debate I’ve engaged in periodically with others.  While we are in the process of reclassifying, should private schools be competing on the same plane as public schools or should they vie for separate titles?

Of the 138 schools that compete in basketball, 23 are private schools, with nine of those being town academies or schools which contract with the local town or district to educate students.  In order to compete in MPA sanctioned events these institutions must adhere to the same guidelines as their public school counterparts.

Some point to the unfair advantages private schools enjoy to champion their views of separation.  They draw kids from all over.  They recruit, or some, by golly, even have dorms!  I guess we need to define the term ‘recruit’.  Many schools will make presentations to sending schools outlining the programs they have to offer.  By the way, many public schools also do this.  No school can specifically target a student for the expressed purpose of athletics.

The athletic department is often the most visible aspect of a school.  For those of us who have been out of school for any length of time, this is often all we see.  Trust me, most school administrators have bigger fish to fry than to concern themselves with how a prospective student will enhance their athletic offerings.  I’m certainly not naive enough to believe that rules aren’t broken.  If that’s the case then deal with the one or two rogue programs than cover all private schools under one gigantic blanket.  By the way, most of us who have followed interscholastic athletics for any length of time in this state can think of a student or two who transferred to another public school for “academic reasons.”  The knife cuts both ways.

For those who still think private schools have in inherent advantage, let’s run a few numbers.  During the past basketball season in the boys ranks, of 22 private or semi-private schools, twelve had a record of .500 or below.  Three privates or town academies didn’t win a single game.  On the girls side, only seven out of 23 schools had a winning record in the regular season.  Of the sixteen regional championships won in basketball, boys and girls, this past season only one was captured by a private school or town academy.  Some advantage, huh?  Guess it’s time to break up the private school monopolies.

Typically the topic of separate classes will arise when a private school wins a title or two then the subject runs dormant for a spell.  When a private school wins is it because of an innate advantage they have being private or are there other mitigating factors?  I heard the grumblings at Fitzpatrick Stadium a few years back when Cheverus football was on their way to rolling to a second consecutive state championship.  Cheverus, people often conveniently forget, was a football doormat for years until John Wolfgram rebuilt the program in the mid-2000’s.  I’ve been following Maine school sports for the better part of thirty years and can never remember the argument being brought up until the last four or five years.

By the way, Wolfgram has achieved similar levels of success at any place he’s been.  When he was winning his four state championships at South Portland, his teams competed against Cheverus every season and seemed to do alright.  Public school or private, give John Wolfgram four years at any school that gives a darn about football and he’ll produce results.  Remember, eight of Wolfgram’s ten state titles were won at public schools.  Now, has Cheverus possibly attracted students because of the football teams’ success?  Absolutely, but probably no more so than any other program that’s successful.

People point to Thornton Academy as an example of a private school having a significant advantage, winning two of the last three football state titles.  Thornton is successful, not because they are private, but thrive due to the fact they have the largest number of kids to choose from in the state.  They have also produced a tremendous youth program in the area and have arguably the finest facilities in the state.

Bangor Christian boys soccer has been a juggernaut, winning the last six Eastern Maine titles, winning states five times.  One of the reasons for their success is location.  The Bangor area has been a hotbed of youth soccer for the past several years.  Their players from an early age have access to club soccer programs that their counterparts from more rural areas may not have access to.  Most of the Class D teams hail from far flung areas in Aroostook and Washington County.  Take note too that some of their better players coming up through the ranks have transferred to larger Class A programs, primarily to compete against better competition.

Still not convinced?  Ask yourself this:  why would a student transfer to a private school, often shelling out big money to compete against other Maine kids?  Why transfer as they can do this at the school they are currently attend?  If a student has the potential to be a scholarship athlete, wouldn’t they be more likely to go the out of state prep school route than play against in-state competition?  I’m failing to see the athletic advantage.

So you still want a separate class for private schools?  What would this look like?  The twenty three private schools are all significantly different in scope and mission.  They range from large town academies like Thornton to small Christian class ‘D’ schools.  Would you really have Bangor Christian competing against Cheverus on the basketball floor?

For many this argument strikes to the core of our provincial natures.  It tears us up to watch “our” hometown kids lose to a group of kids with no geographical ties to their school.

If we were in a state with a greater base of scholarship players and a higher number of private schools competing against each other I could possibly understand the argument.  For now, this amounts to an unworkable solution to a non-existent problem.


Bob Beatham

About Bob Beatham

Bob, a lifelong Bangor resident, has just completed his 21st season as the Public Address Announcer at Mansfield Stadium in Bangor. Bob is also the public address voice for John Bapst Crusader football. He also currently serves as the scorekeeper for John Bapst basketball. Bob is an avid follower of Maine high school athletics, particularly football and basketball. The University of Maine at Farmington graduate is the service coordinator at Aging Excellence, which provides in-home care for seniors..