It looked like a done deal. All that was needed was State Commissioner of Education David C. Hespe's OK.

But Hespe Monday rejected two controversial votes that would have reshaped scholastic sports in New Jersey — separating public from nonpublic schools for wrestling and football. He announced the rejection in a letter sent to NJSIAA executive director Steve Timko.

The NJSIAA votes were meant to ensure more level playing field (figuratively speaking) for high school athletes. Several private and parochial schools over the last few years have pulled from a statewide pool of talent — turning them into powerhouses that then face off against public schools pulling only from their own immediate communities.

But in his letter, Hespe said the moves would have cut students off from a key benefit of the current structure — the opportunity to interact with students from different backgrounds, coming from different environments.

"Ensuring a competitive balance and equitable playing opportunities are critical components of NJSIAA’s mission," he wrote. "However, longstanding and equally important goals of interscholastic sports relate to preparing students for life in a global society and maximizing the benefits of diversity among student athletes from different backgrounds and life experiences, including race, ethnicity and religion."

Hespe quoted 1982 Commissioner of Education decision:

“A league and conference structure that provides opportunity for healthy athletic competition among urban, suburban, rural and parochial schools adds substantially to the benefits derived from such interaction and serves the interest of preparing our young people for future involvement with persons of diverse socioeconomic, regional, and religious backgrounds.”

Earlier this month, NJSIAA member schools voted on several measures — two of which Hespe overturned. A 215-128 vote would have placed nonpublic schools into a separate conference for football. Another 216-121 vote would have restructured the state's wrestling tournament — two nonpublic school districts and one nonpublic region would have competed separately from public school districts and regions.

Hespe's decision preserves the status quo in both sports.

He acknowledged in his letter some NJSIAA member schools are "frustrated by the non-competitive nature of playing elite non-public schools, raising both fairness and safety issues."

But he also said non-public schools have their own concerns "about discrimination, equal athletic opportunity, and the ability to develop full schedules without increased burdens to the non-public schools."

Hespe said he would direct the NJSIAA to conduct a study of those issues "as soon as practicable," looking for solutions to the competitiveness concern that wouldn't create undue transportation hardships or a loss of instructional time.

"This vote was an acknowledgement that there is a problem and that separation is not the answer," Raritan wrestling coach Rob Nucci said told the Asbury Park Press. "We were previously told not to make any drastic changes, but that is what is needed. The powers, both public and parochial, need to be separated, and the regions need to be balanced as far as the number of teams. The time to do it is now, and the NJSIAA should appoint a committee to start working on it immediately."

Wayne Hills' football coch Wayne Demikoff told that he thought the NJSIAA votes had finally fairly resolved the public/non-public issue.

"It seems like every time a resolution comes up, something gets in the way," Demikoff said. "All the time and everything that went into it, trying to get an honest effort in balancing schedules and things like that, it's a shame."

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