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SD panel votes for openness of high school group

By Nora Hertel

PIERRE (AP) — The South Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill Thursday requiring more transparency from the association that oversees high school sports and other activities.

The committee voted unanimously for a provision that would subject the High School Activities Association to the state's open government laws. It would require the group to open its meetings and records to the public and report regularly to the Legislature's Government Operations and Audit Committee.

Supporters say the bill would provide information to a public that's been frustrated by a lack of access to the organization.

"The High School Activities Association is an association that touches a lot of communities," said David Bordewyk, of the South Dakota Newspaper Association.

He said the association affects people in urban and rural parts of the state, including public and private schools.

"While the bill may not be convenient," Bordewyk said, "open government brings clarity and accountability and confidence to the public."

The association governs South Dakota high school sports and fine arts activities, operating with funding from event ticket sales and member school districts.

It is considered a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization. Supporters of the bill argue it should be held to the same transparency requirements as public agencies.

Sen. Corey Brown, R-Gettysburg, the main sponsor of the bill, said the Legislature allows school boards to share their authority. Brown's bill would allow school boards to share that authority only if the association agrees to follow open records laws.

"We're not going to let school boards delegate their authority to an entity that is not subject to the same policy," Brown said.

Representatives of the association oppose the bill. Lindsey Riter-Rapp, the association's attorney, said the bill might not allow the group to meet in private, executive sessions to discuss sensitive topics such as a specific student's eligibility.

"We want to ensure that that student, that issue is protected," Riter-Rapp said.

"These statutes were crafted with a public body in mind, so they don't fit the particular purposes of the High School Activities Association, which is not public in nature," she added after the meeting.

Mike Ruth is the superintendent of Miller School District and a member of the association's eight-person board of directors. He said the organization will work harder to be transparent.

"We all want to do what is best for our students and our schools," Ruth said.

The board of directors ruled Tuesday to open its meetings to the public. And it plans to submit an amendment on open policy for the association's constitution in March. Member groups would vote on the change to the constitution in April. A 60 percent vote is required to make the change.

Brown said he appreciates the group's efforts but noted the association's policy does not include an enforcement mechanism.

"I do think that the organization has, to a lot of degrees, tried to be open," Brown said. "With this additional layer of scrutiny, it helps to clarify exactly what we're looking for."