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Thursday, Oct. 17, 2019: Section 5 in stalemate with boys basketball refs

   Leading off today: Every once in awhile, a story comes my way that is worth telling but feels too complicated to get my arms around. I've been able to work around it occasionally by letting it ferment long enough for another reporter to get wind of the story and write about it, which isn't terribly responsible on my part.

   Well, no such luck this time. Stuff has been going on now for several months and the pace has picked up in recent days, so I'm going to lay out what I know while conceding that I'm missing some of the pieces of the puzzle.

   A source began telling me late this summer that Section 5 and its boys basketball officials were in a disagreement that wasn't going to end amicably. I started reading up on the legalese, checking with other sources and putting together the questions that I wanted to ask. All I needed was a development that would push the story to the front burner.

   That came last week when Section 5 filed a grievance with the New York State Public High School Athletic Association, asserting that a missed deadline for the basketball referees to turn over information needed to set up officiating schedules for the upcoming season indicates a refusal to work and breach of contract.

   Section 5 Executive Director Kathy Hoyt confirmed on Oct. 10 that a grievance was filed, and I'll get into what that entails shortly. I reached out to a representative of the basketball officials organization earlier this week but he said they were not prepared to comment.

   As best as I can tell, we may be heading for a rough start to the Section 5 boys basketball season at the end of next month with referees potentially unwilling to work games.

   The recent timeline looks something like this:

   Section 5 and the Unified Sports Board Council, the umbrella organization for officials in all sports, concluded negotiations on a new four-year contract this summer. The contract set the per-game pay for basketball officials at $100 for varsity, $75 for JV or freshman and $65 for modified.

   Hoyt announced to athletic directors in late August that the contract had been signed. It was around that time that I heard rumblings that IAABO Board 60, representing officials working games for much of Section 5, had previously rejected the proposal that had been on the table and withdrew from negotiations.

   In fact, Boards 60 and 156 (Steuben County) withdrew not only from negotiations but from the Unified Sports Board Council as a whole, adding a layer of complexity to the simmering dispute.

   Board 60 took it a step further early last month when its members reportedly voted to not work games in the upcoming season unless they were given control of making the assignments, a task traditionally performed by the section in mid-October. The so-called "officials draw" has several moving parts to it. Individual officials submit a short list of schools whose games they do not want to work and coaches can likewise compose a short list of referees they do not want handling their games. The assignor(s), selected by Section 5 per the terms of a contract between the New York State High School Officials Coordinating Federation and the NYSPHSAA, have the responsibility of accommodating the wishes on those lists as well as tracking dates that officials are unavailable, then piecing together assignments for the season.


   Key among the officials' desire to have their own representatives determine game assignments was the question of travel distances. With the compensation structure of the prior contract changed to do away with mileage reimbursement in exchange for a higher flat-rate fee, there was concern over the distances some officials were being required to travel. The officials contend the mileage issue and other factors have left them making less money that they were getting in 2015.

   By mid-September, the basketball officials found themselves in no-man's land. Section 5 hadn't budged over money or control of the officials. Having completed a contract that representatives for officials in the other sports had OK'd (and one that does not permit strikes), the Unified Sports Board Council informed the basketball groups it was not positioned to go to bat for them with Section 5.

   With the tick of the clock growing louder and still no progress, a Sept. 26 summit was called. The representatives of the two sides at the local level were joined by officials of the NYSPHSAA and the statewide IAABO organization. Section 5 held firm on its right to handle the process of assigning basketball referees, but the officials apparently football site

walked away feeling as though the section would work with them on reducing long travel distances.

   If there was reason for optimism that the dispute could be resolved, it was soon dashed.

   Section 5 followed up by asking the IAABO boards to submit their roster of officials, their availability dates and the list of schools the individual officials would not handle by Oct. 8 so that the draw could be conducted Oct. 16. That deadline wasn't met, and Section 5's Hoyt filed a grievance with the NYSPHSAA the following day.

   Board 60 held a meet- ing Wednesday to update members on the status of the dispute and decide how to proceed. A lawyer with some experience in labor issues tells me that the classic response is to counter with a grievance of their own in order to bring a bargaining chip to the table, but I haven't been made privy to what their actual next step is.

   What's next?

   The contract between the New York State High School Officials Coord- inating Federation (OCF) and the NYSPHSAA spells out the two-step process for addressing disputes.

   Step 1 is fact finding involving a hearing by a representative of the NYSPHSAA and one from the sports officials organization who are selected by the parties. The two present their supporting arguments and may ask questions regarding the other's position. At the conclusion, they will summarize the facts and recommend a resolution.

   If the recommendation does not result in an agreement, the summary of the dispute and what has transpired thus far goes to arbitration conducted by the American Arbitration Association for Step 2.

   Given the amount of time it can take to fully play out each step, it could easily be December or beyond before a ruling is handed down. That obviously takes the sides well past the start of the season.

   What happens between now and the resolution of the dispute is anyone's guess. The section has contract language on its side regarding the right to make the officials assignments, and its contract with the OCF also prohibits strikes. The officials presumably will argue that they are not bound by an agreement that they did not accept.

   There are presumably steps the officials can engage in short of striking to disrupt the process of playing 1,200 regular-season games, but the threat of them sitting out the start of the season would be both their greatest leverage and a guarantee that they'll face hostility on several fronts. As we've seen over the years when weather has been an issue, wiping out even one Friday slate of 50 or more varsity games creates headaches. Teams have to agree on makeup dates, schools have to schedule support staff and someone has to reassign officials.

   That being said, the officials organization is risking a lot. Every game that cannot be rescheduled is money out of the membership's pocket. A victory in arbitration on the grounds that they never agreed to the new contract would seem unlikely for no other reason than the fact that just participating in arbitration might imply that they were abiding by the terms of the contract.

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