Texas Football Playoffs in Turmoil Over Charges of Grade Tampering
Allegations of grade tampering to aid a star running back have thrown the 5A state football championship--the holy grail of Texas high-school athletics--into disarray and forced the Dallas Independent School District to defend the integrity of its grading policy.
Before the Thanksgiving holidays temporarily halted the two-week drama, it had developed more plot twists than television's "Dallas" and legal maneuvers worthy of a corporate takeover. By week's end, two suburban districts at war with the Dallas system were complaining that the state's second-largest district was running roughshod over the Texas no-pass, no-play law, which prevents athletes who fail at least one course from competing in extracurricular activities for six weeks.
"The integrity of the law seems to be in jeopardy at this point," said Linda Ward, a spokesman for the Grand Prairie Independent School District in suburban Dallas.
Dallas officials were contending that the issue was one of local control, and whether or not the state education commissioner, William N. Kirby, could tell districts what grades to give students.
They said that the grade of the student in question had been miscalculated by a teacher and that disputed changes in another player's grade had had nothing to do with his athletic eligibility.
Meanwhile, Dallas's Carter High School Cowboys continued their undefeated march to the championship, despite weeks of see-sawing decisions that first banned them from the competition, then reinstated them, then banned them for a second time before a judge temporarily reinstated them once more.
The Carter Cowboys' problems started on Nov. 10, after the University Interscholastic League, the governing body for secondary-school extracurricular activities, received an anonymous letter and telephone call reporting that running back Gary Edwards had failed algebra but continued playing.
The district initially forfeited Carter's playoff spot but later requested a formal uil hearing after 300 parents protested the decision and Principal C.C. Russeau said the algebra teacher had miscalculated the student's grade.
The team was reinstated in the tournament, knocking out a team from the Grand Prairie district that was to take its place. On Nov. 11, with Mr. Edwards scoring two touchdowns, Carter defeated Plano East Senior High School, 21 to 7.
During the review by the uil and the Texas Education Agency, staff investigators agreed with Dallas's account. Mr. Russeau reported then that the grades of 18 other students, including Ramon Wright, a football player, had been changed because all were recent transfers to the class and had done poorly on an algebra teacher's six-week exam.
Although it was found in compliance with the no-pass, no-play law, the district was ordered by tea lawyers to justify its entire grading policy as well as a school-board decision allowing Carter High to develop its own grading system as part of a school-improvement plan.
The state education department's accreditation division also was instructed to review the matter.
But that was far from the end of the saga. The Grand Prairie and Plano school boards appealed the tea staff's eligibility decision to the commissioner of education.
The algebra teacher, Wilford Bates, was placed on administrative leave by the Dallas school board and a local newspaper quoted sources as saying officials feared for his safety.
On Nov. 18, Mr. Bates testified before Commissioner Kirby that the "NC" notation in his grade book for an assignment not completed by Mr. Edwards should be calculated as carrying no points. Earlier, state and local officials said, the teacher had said the notation was worth 50 points because of Dallas's policy of allowing no grade of less than 50.
Based on Mr. Bates's testimony, the commissioner decided that the student athlete should have received the failing grade of 68, instead of a passing grade of 72. The state mandates a numerical grading system, with 70 being the lowest passing grade. Hours before the next tournament game was to begin on Nov. 18, Mr. Kirby pronounced Dallas in violation of the no-pass, no-play law, prompting the uil to ban Carter High from play for a second time.
But Dallas lawyers quickly filed a lawsuit and obtained a temporary restraining order that prevented the commissioner from deciding the student's grade and reinstated Carter High in the playoffs.
Postponed a day because of the confusion, the game with Dallas's Samuell High School provided Carter with an easy 28-0 victory.
"Now it's a local-control issue," said Larry Ascough, assistant to the Dallas superintendent. "It's whether or not local officials have the authority to determine their own grading system. We're saying the local school district has to determine what grades their students receive."
Last week, the tea was deciding whether to appeal the decision for a temporary restraining order. And the judge in the case set a Dec. 1 hearing to consider Dallas's request for a permanent injunction against tea intervention.
"I do not believe a judge can come in there and arbitrarily say a school district can ignore laws and school-board policy," said Commissioner Kirby.
Officials from Plano and Grand Prairie said that the education reforms enacted in 1984 are at stake.
"We're also proponents of local control, but local control means you have the right within the law to enact policies," said Allan Bird, president of the Plano school board. He said that initially the issue had just been a football championship, which Plano teams have won three times in recent years. But now it has grown.
"The issue is whether we move forth with education reform or go back to where we were 10 years ago," Mr. Bird said. "The commissioner of education ought to have a right to determine if those rules are being followed."
Ms. Ward of the Grand Prairie schools noted that the no-pass, no-play law affects 1 million Texas students engaged in sports and other activities. "What's good for one should apply to all," she said.
Last week, Plano board members were considering a resolution of support for Mr. Kirby and possibly asking the state's other 1,100 school districts to follow suit.
Carter High, meanwhile, continued to advance through the playoffs, and was scheduled to play Lufkin High School on the Texas A&M University football field last Saturday.