By Phil Anastasia

Inquirer Staff Writer

EDISON, N.J. -- The future format of high school sports in New Jersey was cast in doubt by two historic votes Monday by the general membership of the state's governing body.

By convincing margins, members of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association approved proposals that will separate athletes who represent non-public schools from athletes who represent public schools.

The most significant vote came on the proposal to create a state-wide, non-public football conference, which will remove all non-public schools that play football from their existing league or conference.

The second proposal that was approved will create four non-public districts and one non-public region in the individual state wrestling tournament.

"This is the membership and they have a voice and they used it," NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko said after the meeting at the Pines Manor banquet facility.

Reaction was swift and strong from several non-public school officials, who denounced the votes as "discriminatory" against private schools.

Paul VI athletic director Tony Mitchell made an impassioned speech against the football proposal before the vote, saying the NJSIAA was "tearing down the house because there's a leak in the roof."

After the vote, Mitchell suggested that non-public schools in the state should consider breaking away from the NJSIAA and forming their own state association.

"Why would we want to stay with the NJSIAA when they just voted to throw us out?" Mitchell said.

The proposals, which create new by-laws to the NJSIAA's constitution, must be approved by New Jersey Commissioner of Education David Hespe before taking effect.

NJSIAA counsel Stephen Goodell said the new by-laws would be sent to the commissioner's office "immediately" and that a ruling was likely in January.

In addition, several non-public officials indicated that the schools almost certainly will challenge the new by-laws in court if the commissioner of education upholds the changes.

"You know the lawsuits are coming," St. Augustine Prep athletic director Mike Rizzo said.

Rizzo and other non-public officials said there were tentative plans for a meeting of officials from non-public schools at Rutgers on Thursday to discuss future options, including a legal challenge.

Goodell said it was "premature" to discuss a possible legal challenge before the commissoner of education rules on the new by-laws.

NJSIAA officials said the football proposal would take effect for the 2016 season and the wrestling proposal for the 2016-17 season.

The proposal to create a state-wide football conference passed by a vote of 215-128 in favor, with two abstentions.

The proposal to separate non-public wrestlers at the district and region level of the state tournament passed by 216-121 with eight abstentions.

A majority vote of ballots cast was needed for the proposals to pass.

NJSIAA officials said 36 non-public schools that field football teams would be responsible for forming the framework of the state-wide conference, including divisions, schedules and by-laws.

"We'll assist in any way we can," Goodell said.

Under the football proposal, non-public schools and public schools still could play cross-over games if both schools agree to the contest.

Ewing athletic director Bud Kowal, the president of the West Jersey Football League, was outspoken in his criticism of the football proposal.

"The vote went North-South, just like I thought it would," Kowal said. "This is a North Jersey problem. The NJSIAA says they represent all of us. They represent North Jersey."

Kowal said he "assumes" the WJFL, a 95-school association that includes every school in South Jersey that plays football -- including nine non-public schools -- will remain intact for the 2016-17 scheduling cycle as the likely legal challenge winds its way through the court system.

Kowal said there were "no plans yet" to create a schedule for the WJFL including just public schools.

Timko said he hoped that non-public schools would "go through the process" of a two-year scheduling cycle in the state-wide, non-public conference before appealing to the organization for a new format or issuing a legal challenge.

"I'm saying, 'Let's see if it works,'" Timko said.

Monsignor Michael Kelly, the president of Seton Hall Prep, said the proposals were "discriminatory" against non-public schools and that the courts had ruled against such separation in the past.

In 2009, then-Commissioner of Education Lucille Davy vetoed an NJSIAA by-law that would have separated wrestlers at the region level.

Goodell indicated that the current wrestling proposal includes opportunities for more wrestlers to advance to the state tournament that the by-law that was vetoed in 2009.

In addition, Goodell and other NJSIAA officials believe a split of non-publics and publics is warrented in football because the physical nature of the sport should allow for separation when there is such a large discrepency in competitive balance.

The football proposal came out of the NJSIAA's public/non-public committee and was approved by the NJSIAA's executive committee with both groups arguing that non-public schools have a competitive advantage because of their ability to attract student athletes from an unrestricted geographic region.

Many officials believed the proposals were the result of growing disenchantment among many public schools in the northern part of the state over the dominance of powerhouse programs such as Don Bosco Prep football and Bergen Catholic wrestling.

Mitchell was among the non-public officials who were adamant that new by-laws would be subjected to a legal challenge.

In addition, Mitchell said he planned to attend a national meeting of athletic directors in Florida this weekend and hoped to discuss the public/non-public issue with that group's leadership.

"I want to see if it's legal for us to pull out of the NJSIAA and form our own association," Mitchell said. "I think there's support for it. It's clear the NJSIAA doesn't want us."

Some officials speculate that the separation of football and wrestling will lead to addition moves in the future involving other sports.

"Basketball is next," Holy Spirit athletic director Jay Connell said.

-- Contact Phil Anastasia at panastasia@phillynews.com

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