At least a dozen of the province's top scholar-athletes have switched high schools this year to improve their chances of winning a provincial championship.
"I call it free agency, basically," said Morris Glimcher, executive director of the Manitoba High Schools Athletic Association.
Although the MHSAA has strict rules against recruiting athletes from other divisions, the athletes can easily switch schools through the province's schools of choice program.
Glimcher said some high school "free agents" played recently in the final fours of both boys and girls AAAA volleyball, though he would not identify them.
"There seems to be larger movement of students between schools, between grades 11 and 12... maybe trying to stack a team for a provincial championship.
"I'd say a good dozen kids have transferred across the city -- a good dozen, if not more," said Glimcher.
"It's across the board now, in several schools and several sports: 'Hey, we might be able to win here.' Is that right? Does that fit in schools of choice?"
Glimcher said he hears from parents whose kids have played on their local school teams right through Grade 11, then been consigned to the bench in Grade 12 or even cut when new students arrive to take starting spots.
"Is it about winning or is it about having a school community?" Glimcher asked.
MHSAA board president Scott Kwasnitza, superintendent of Lord Selkirk School Division, said the problem is getting worse every year, and the playing field is getting less and less level.
"Each year, with more and more kids jumping ship or being free agents, is that the spirit of schools of choice?" asked Kwasnitza. "There seems to be more and more of a push to win at all costs.
"A lot of the recruiting is student-to-student, possibly parent-to-parent," with a lot of the recruiting going on when top athletes from different schools play together at the club level, he said.
Because of provincial privacy rules, no one has to explain why a student switched schools, Kwasnitza said.
Senior provincial officials said that there are no limitations within the Public Schools Act on students switching schools for athletic reasons.
"Restrictions for schools of choice are limited to academics," and are based on the availability of space in the academic program in which a student from out of a catchment area wishes to enrol, said David Yeo, director of the education administration branch.
"The act talks about academic programs -- it doesn't talk about varsity sports. The form doesn't ask the student's reasons for doing so."
Availability in a specific academic program for which the student is qualified is the only criterion for the accepting school to consider.
Schools of choice was designed to allow students to move within a division, or from one division to another, without paying any fees, to access an educational program not offered at their local school. Divisions have policies that generally cap how many students can be in a class, and it's up to the principal to decide if a program can accommodate an outside student.
Interlake School Division superintendent Ross Metcalfe, a former longtime MHSAA board member, said there were fears about schools of choice's effect on athletics from the first day that Tory Education Minister Linda McIntosh introduced it in the late 1990s.
"It's for academic choices, but there are people passionate about their sport," Metcalfe said. "We all know there are schools known for their powerhouses.
"It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out" that student-athletes will switch schools to try to win a championship, he said.
Glimcher said the MHSAA has had strict rules for several years that forbid schools from trying to recruit or entice top athletes to switch schools, but he acknowledged those rules are tough to enforce and violations difficult to prove.
Kwasnitza said some other provinces require students switching schools to sit out of varsity sports the first year after their move, although there are appeals allowed for legitimate transfers, such as when a family moves into the area.
Metcalfe said Interlake SD has traced students' reasons for leaving through schools of choice. Some wanted vocational programs not offered within the division. In one case, a student moved from Warren Collegiate to Westwood Collegiate to access a specific arts program offered there.
Metcalfe said he's never heard of a student switching schools to star in a major performing arts production, whereas many students have done so for varsity sports.
"What is Morris (Glimcher) to do? He can't overrule provincial legislation (governing schools of choice)," said Metcalfe. "There's always going to be that less than one per cent that wants to win at all costs."
Glimcher said a related matter is whether the province will allow elite sports academies to compete in their sport against other local high schools.
Glimcher expects basketball, volleyball and hockey academies to be established in Manitoba soon. They bring several dozen of the province's top athletes in a sport to one high school for intensive training, forming teams that would likely be stronger than other high schools'.
Shaftesbury High School has a hockey academy already, as does Balmoral Hall School. Balmoral's elite team plays girls teams of its calibre in the U.S., and its members do not play on Balmoral Hall's high school team. Shaftesbury's elite girls prep program also plays extensively in the U.S.
Glenlawn Collegiate has a soccer academy, but the students don't play for Glenlawn during the short outdoor soccer season.
"Glenlawn has been no problem whatsoever. Glenlawn, they don't compete -- they don't have the desire or the time to compete" in soccer, Glimcher said.
Elite sports academies draw students from other divisions, bringing with them per-student grants and the property taxes paid by that student's parents -- the provincial average is $11,473 per student. An academy can bring a school division close to $500,000 a year in additional funding.
Metcalfe said when Warren Collegiate established a hockey program for its own students, the division refused to run a bus into the city.
"Some things just don't seem ethically correct," said Metcalfe, and could come back to bite you if other divisions then run a bus into your town.
The other issue with sports academies is those top student-athletes are strong in other sports, too, Glimcher said. They boost the academy in all sports, while leaving their former schools' teams weaker.
"Academies bring really good athletes -- they're good athletes overall. In provincial volleyball, (Glenlawn) had four of their soccer players playing," he said.
Top high school athletes of the last half-century / C3
under the Public Schools Act:
58.3 A resident pupil may be enrolled in
(a) a program offered at any school within the school division or school district; or
(b) subject to section 58.4, a program offered at a school in another school division or school district;
Enrolment by school
58.4(1) A school shall enrol a non-resident pupil in the program for which he or she applies unless, in the opinion of the principal or other person designated by the school board,
(a) there is insufficient space in the program the pupil wishes to attend having regard to the priorities established in subsection (2);
(b) enrolling the pupil in the program would require significant expenditure to extend or otherwise alter a program or the school building or school property;
(c) enrolling the pupil in the program likely would be seriously detrimental to the continuity of the pupil's education;
(d) the program is not suited to the age, ability or aptitude of the pupil;
(e) enrolling the pupil in the program likely would be seriously detrimental to order and discipline in the school or the educational well-being of pupils there;
(f) enrolling the pupil in the program is inadvisable for any other reason or for any circumstance that may be specified in the regulations.
58.4(2) Where the number of pupils who apply to enrol in a program in a school exceeds the number of places available in the program, the school shall enrol pupils in the following order of priority:
(a) first, pupils who reside in the school's catchment area;
(b) second, pupils who reside in the school division;
(c) third, other pupils.
Provincial legislation governing schools of choice can be found at web2.gov.mb.ca/laws/statutes/ccsm/p250_2e.php .