More than two years of surveys, feedback, contemplation and fine-tuning will come to a head Thursday morning, when the general membership of the Maine Principals’ Association votes whether to expand the state’s high school basketball ranks from four to five classes beginning next winter.

The five-class proposal is one of several changes advanced by the MPA’s Classification Committee that will be considered at the outset of the organization’s annual spring conference at the Samoset Resort in Rockport, according to Executive Director Dick Durost.

Other proposals, if approved, would allow:

— For cooperative teams in all activities;

For a two-year application to a higher classification in any sport instead of the current four-year commitment;

For reducing the Heal point differential between each class from five points to two;

For changing the maximum number of students of a gender in a school from 40 to 60 in order for eighth-graders to complete a team if necessary;

For renaming the Eastern and Western Maine regional designations for all sports North and South;

And for downsizing skiing and wrestling from three to two classes.

But the most discussed change under consideration would add a fifth class to the state’s traditional four-class hierarchy. It’s an effort to address declining school enrollments and a southward population shift that have created a corresponding glut of schools in the lower-enrollment classes, mostly from northern and eastern Maine.

Just nine schools statewide have an enrollment greater than 1,000, while 70 percent of MPA-member high schools have enrollments of fewer than 500.

The proposed change would add a Class AA of the state’s largest basketball-playing schools in order to disperse the teams among five classes instead of four and in as many cases as possible reduce the enrollment differential between the largest and smallest schools in any given class in an attempt to improve competitive balance.

Officials involved in the proposal and others throughout the state’s basketball community anticipate a close vote, and a four-class format that mirrors the current format is in place if the five-class proposal is rejected.

There is a consensus that some change is needed; but despite limited response to several Classification Committee requests for feedback during the developmental stage of the proposal, some athletic administrators would like at least an additional year to assess the potential impact of the recommendation.

Most concerns have come either from schools that would suddenly find themselves as the smallest program by enrollment in a given class under the new breakdown or from schools and conferences that may face a new scheduling paradigm involving a greater reliance on playing more schools from different classes.

Conferences historically have provided member schools the opportunity to schedule most of their contests against opponents from the same class, with only a modest amount of regular-season games scheduled between opponents from different classes. But with the proposed addition of a fifth class it’s likely some traditional opponents would be newly designated to different classes.

Concern about that possibility prompted one of the major tweaks related to the five-class proposal — reducing the Heal point differential per class from five points to two.

Currently a Class A win is worth 40 Heal points, with B, C and D wins worth 35, 30 and 25 Heal points, respectively, in sports where the points are used to determine seeding for tournament play.

Under the two-point differential in a five-class proposal, a Class AA win would be worth 40, with A, B, C and D wins worth 38, 36, 34 and 32 points, respectively.

This may be more of a peace-of-mind change than a significant numerical adjustment, given that in several tests where the final Heal points of past seasons were reconfigured with several point differentials per class, very few if any changes were found in playoff seeding.

But basketball coaches and athletic administrators are very protective of their Heal points, and supporters of the change say reducing the differential could preserve rivalries potentially threatened by reclassification as well as foster more games among neighboring schools that don’t play during the regular season because they compete in different classes.

Another scheduling issue involves the four current Eastern Maine Class A or Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A schools that would become part of the new Class AA: Bangor, Edward Little of Auburn, Lewiston and Oxford Hills of South Paris.

Those northern AA schools, aided by a change in Heal point differentials, likely would retain some rivalries against schools that would remain in Class A. Bangor, for instance, probably would continue scheduling Brewer and Hampden Academy among their future Class A opponents.

The other proposed Class AA schools are from the Southwestern Maine Activities Association based in Cumberland and York counties, which traditionally has had a closed schedule, meaning members play only fellow SMAA members.

But SMAA officials indicated at a recent Classification Committee meeting that the league would open its schedule to provide games for the four KVAC programs that would join Class AA, not only helping them fill out their schedules but also providing regular-season matchups against teams they may also face in the tournament.

Another tweak made by the Classification Committee en route to its final five-class recommendation was to make Class AA a two-region division like the other classes rather a single-division class as originally proposed.

Some of the northern Class AA schools stressed the importance of retaining a regional championship format for the state’s largest basketball programs as well as a state title, and the Classification Committee was receptive to that sentiment in revising its proposal.

Under the current plan, the two Class AA divisions — eight boys and eight girls teams in the North and eight boys teams and nine girls teams in the South — would send 67 percent of their teams to postseason play as is the case in the other classes.

One issue that would require fairly immediate attention should the five-class basketball proposal be approved is how to incorporate a Class AA tournament into the existing postseason schedule.

The tournament sites for Classes A-B-C-D likely would remain the same, with the locales and perhaps timing of the Class AA tournaments yet to be determined.

If the five-class plan passes a meeting has been scheduled among tournament committee members for May 8 to begin formal discussions about postseason scheduling.

If the five-class proposal is approved either Thursday or at a later date, it is expected to trigger momentum for adopting similar formats in other Heal point sports such as baseball, softball and boys and girls soccer. Organizers in at least some of those sports already have expressed interest in following basketball’s potential five-class lead.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...