South Dakota Senate sends high school activities association openness bill to House

SOUTH DAKOTA — A bill that would require the South Dakota High School Activities Association comply with open meetings and public records laws to has passed the state Senate and is now in the hands of the House.

Sponsors say Senate Bill 90 would hold the association accountable, but the association’s director calls the bill unnecessary, as they’re already working to respond to the issues raised in the legislation.

“I think there were some decisions that had come from the activities association that had started to create a lot of questions and maybe even a little uproar amongst the general public,” said bill sponsor state Sen. Corey Brown, a Republican. “I think a lot of folks kind of felt like those decisions were made without a lot of transparency or forewarning.”

The association has “broad” authority, Brown said, to administer athletic and fine arts events in the state for member schools. School districts delegate their authority to the association. The association sets ticket prices, practice seasons and can regulate rules and procedures for games, he said.

The association is able to collect dues from member schools, but says it hasn’t done so for the past four years as they have used corporate sponsorship dollars to cover their costs.

Republican bill co-sponsor state Sen. Bill Van Gerpen said the same rules that govern schools ought to apply to the activities association.

“They exist because of statutes that created them, so on one hand we can call them a private entity, but they required legislation in order to allow school districts to delegate this authority,” Brown said.

Wayne Carney, executive director of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, said the association is a private nonprofit, and therefore wouldn’t need to meet everything stated in the open meetings laws.

“Now, that being said, we feel we are meeting all those,” Carney said. “All of our minutes are online. All of our agendas are online. All of our meetings are open to the public. And the issues that were brought up in the original bill in January, the association has responded to all of those requests.”

In response to the bill, the association adopted a resolution addressing the issues in the bill. The next step is a proposed amendment to their constitution laying out the guidelines for keeping their meetings open to the public.

“We heard loud and clear what their issues were and we just felt that one of the best ways to deal with that is to be proactive and try to address them,” Carney said. “And we feel that this addition to the constitution and bylaws addresses the concerns that were given to us in early January.”

The bill also requires audit reports be made public on the association’s website. Carney said this is not needed as they have been posting these reports for the last five years.

Supporters of the bill say it is still necessary. Legislation would assure there is recourse if down the line, different leadership wasn’t as committed to transparency.

Brown said a recent meeting illustrates the need for this bill. Before the meeting, the agenda was posted, but related documents weren’t, which may have changed someone’s decision to attend the meeting. Carney said the documents were available to anyone who asked.

“I think like any government organization or quasi-government organization, if the public has a better understanding and knowledge about what that organization is doing, there’s a much better chance that they’re going to have more confidence in that organization’s decision-making abilities,” said David Bordewyk, general manager and lobbyist for the South Dakota Newspaper Association. “And I think that confidence is lacking today in the governance and the operations of the High School Activities Association among some.”

Bordewyk cited recent decisions of the association that have created frustrations among citizens and led legislators to take action. For one, the association is raising ticket prices to help fund a foundation it recently created, he said. The association has also been discussing relocating where state tournaments are hosted. Some have raised questions about the money the association receives from not only member schools, but also corporate sponsorships, Bordewyk said.

Carney said the ticket price increase is the first in 11 years and was a response to concerns of member schools about not making enough money hosting tournaments. Of the two-dollar increase, one dollar is designated to the foundation. The association is also combining some tournaments to one location and reviewed a new venue as it became available the same way it has always been done, Carney said.

Bordewyk said bringing more transparency and openness to this organization will help bring confidence and understanding among the public, which will lead to less frustration.

“It’s hard to not support the concept,” Carney said. “We just don’t feel that the law is necessary to address the issues that are currently in the bill.”

By Lydia Coutré, SPLC staff writer. Contact her by email or at (703) 807-1904 ext. 126.