The reclassification process for high schools by the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association won’t take effect until the 2024-25 school year.
And while that may still seem a way off, the process has already begun. And last week, it received a wrinkle.
Last week, the WIAA Representative Assembly passed an amendment that will lower the enrollment threshold that divides Class 4A and Class 3A. The measure will take effect for the reclassification process of 2024-25.
For years, the WIAA divided its six classifications equally, with each having about 64 schools each. But starting in the 2020-21 school year, the WIAA set fixed enrollment cutoffs for each classification.
That would cause each classification to vary in size, but the schools in each classification would be more balanced competitively. Or at least, that was the theory.
But among the larger schools, it caused more headaches than it solved.
The reset boundaries between 3A and 4A left Class 3A with 79 schools in it, the most of any class above 1B. Class 4A was left with 51 schools, the fewest among any of the classifications.
While Class 4A state tournaments remained 16-team affairs — as all state tournaments did previously — the 3A state tournaments grew to 20 teams.
Now, you might say “Hey, more teams get to go to state. Isn’t that a good thing?”
Yes, more teams qualified for state from 3A, but proportionally nothing changed. Before the change, in every classification, 16 teams out of 64 or 65 total teams qualified for state, or one in four. Now at 3A, 20 of 79 schools qualify for state, or about one in four.
But at 4A, 16 of 51 schools qualify for state, which is closer to one in three.
And then in a 20-team field, the extra teams that do qualify for state are not guaranteed the full state experience as schools with a 16-team field.
For example, in two weeks, 16 teams will advance to the 4A state softball tournament, with each team guaranteed two games in the event played over Friday and Saturday.
The 3A state tournament will begin on Thursday with eight teams playing for four spots into the 16-team double-elimination bracket that starts Friday. The four losers of those Thursday games are out, which makes those Round-of-20 games feel a lot like a state play-in game.
And in other sports, the scheduling of an extra round of state games can cause further headaches.
The solution was to lower the enrollment cutoff between 4A and 3A from 1,300 students to 1,225 students.
If the 1,225 number had been in place during the last reclassification process, 14 schools that were classified as a 3A school would have been classified as a 4A school.
At the top of the list of those schools is Mountain View, which has one of the largest enrollments of any current 3A school. That makes the Thunder a prime candidate to return to 4A come 2024-25.
But enrollments can change dramatically from one reclassification process to another, and the pandemic likely could make those changes more dramatic. So we will have to see where local schools fall.
But there is another wrinkle to throw into the mixture.
Prior to the 2020-21 reclassification process, the WIAA passed another rule that would allow schools to reduce the enrollment number used to classification if a certain percentage of its student body was on a free or reduced lunch program. The goal of this change was to provide some equity for schools in less-affluent communities.
This rule allowed several schools to move down in classification, including two local schools, Fort Vancouver and Hudson’s Bay. Both currently compete at Class 2A instead of Class 3A.
But during the pandemic, the national government gave schools funding to provide free lunches to all students. That funding ran out prior to the current school year, but many school districts, like Vancouver and Evergreen public schools, made free lunches for all a permanent part of their school programs.
If everyone can get a free lunch, then families are no longer applying for the free-lunch program. And then that metric doesn’t work anymore for the purposes for which the WIAA was using it.
Now, the WIAA is searching for a new equity metric, and there is a lot of uncertainty about what that will look like and how it will impact schools in the classification process.
So it will be an interesting next eight months. Schools will receive preliminary enrollment numbers next month with more definite numbers being released in the fall. After an appeal and opt-up/opt-down process, the classifications for the 2024-25 school year will be set in January 2024.
Tim Martinez is the assistant sports editor/prep coordinator for The Columbian. He can be reached at (360) 735-4538, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow @360TMart on Twitter and Instagram.