NMAA focused on rebuilding image

Neil Nuttall talks about the upcoming challenges that he is going to face as president of the NMAA board of directors. CNJ photo by Eric Kluth.

Rick White

The state’s governing body for high school athletics has an image problem, according to the organization’s newly elected board president.

Clovis Schools Superintendent Neil Nuttall said financial problems, an unpopular realignment plan and an uncompromising attitude by the previous administration has alienated members of the New Mexico Activities Association.

Nuttall, elected president of the 13-member board earlier this month, said sweeping changes have been made in th e last six months, starting with the resignation of longtime executive director Dan Salzwedel in September.

“Some real walls have been built the last four or five years with the executive director,” Nuttall said. “I’m not blaming Mr. Salzwedel for all of that. I think it’s a combination of a lot of things.

“The realignment wasn’t handled in the right way. Albuquerque became embittered on the travel issue. I think it was a combination of all those, and Dan knew. … He dearly loves the association. I think he cared enough about it to know his time was over and it was time for somebody new.”

Salzwedel’s downfall started in April when the NMAA announced it was requiring member schools to pay a one-time assessment to help pay the association’s operating costs over the summer. The assessment, which totaled more than $176,000, didn’t go over well with many school officials.

A month later, Salzwedel announced his intention to resign after 23 years with the NMAA — 17 as executive director — at the end of the 2003-04 school year.
But the money woes continued, worsened by paltry attendance at some state-level events held outside Albuquerque.

In September, the NMAA placed a non-essential spending freeze on Salzwedel and demanded a detailed accounting of the association’s income and expenditures.

Two weeks later, Salzwedel stepped down. A private accounting firm uncovered non-financial wrongdoing by Salzwedel, who remains on the payroll through May using accrued vacation.

“There were a lot of little things that I wished I’d handled different a number of years ago,” Salzwedel told the Albuquerque Journal during a May news conference to announce he was stepping down at the end of the 2003-04 school year. “We all mature into our roles. “But I can’t think of major decision I would have made differently.”
Salzwedel did not return phone calls left Friday and Saturday at his home.

Rio Rancho High principal Gary Tripp will take over as executive director in June. The executive director answers to the board, which is composed predominantly of school superintendents.

Nuttall said the biggest challenges the board faces are getting the organization back on solid financial footing and restoring the NMAA’s integrity with its members. Nuttall said the NMAA faces at least a $150,000 budget deficit this year.
The NMAA has already made significant changes since Salzwedel’s departure, including forming a committee to realign schools in more travel-friendly districts and returning all state tournaments to eight-team formats.

Nuttall said lack of communication between the administration and member schools was the biggest problem. He also said there were accountability issues and unclear direction during meetings.

“The organization doesn’t have the checks and balances and accountability that it needs to have. We’ve been pretty dogged about getting financial reports, how decisions are made, and getting advanced knowledge about things before we are asked to vote on them. And it happened pretty rapidly.

“My first meeting I didn’t get my solid agenda until I arrived that morning. If I’m going to represent Hobbs, Carlsbad and Ruidoso, Roswell and Artesia, I’ve got to talk to them about the issues on the table. If I don’t, I’m only voting what Neil Nuttall thinks.”

Fort Sumner athletic director and football and track coach Mario Martinez said the new administration has fostered an openness that has been missing for a long time. He said many NMAA members objected to Salzwedel’s iron-fisted rule.

“A lot of people felt they weren’t being heard at the upper level. It had become a negative type of thing where people felt things were being rammed down their throat without having a say,” said Martinez, who chairs the NMAA Commission, a subcommittee that deals in rules changes and formats.

“Now people finally think they have a voice.”
The committee announced its realignment plans for Class 1A and 2A starting in 2004-05, and will begin looking at Class 3A-5A this week.

Albuquerque Public Schools athletic director Scott Evans said he’s also seen improvement at the NMAA.
“Things have changed dramatically,” said Evans, who felt the previous administration allowed an unhealthy rift to develop between the APS and other parts of the state.

“Over the course of time, there have been some bad feelings,” Evans said. “The administration had fostered some negative feelings between the north and south schools as well as the big and small schools.”
Evans said Nuttall has facilitated healthy dialogue at all levels — something that had been missing for a while.

“He’s already made a significant difference with his leadership of the board,” said Evans, who oversees the state’s largest school district with 11 schools. “He’s shown the ability to research issues and help the board formulate solutions to significant issues and problems.”

Beyond realignment and financial issues, Evans would like to see the NMAA streamline the paperwork involved regarding eligibility and injury reports. He said schools are capable of self-regulation on those issues.

“It’s a time-consuming process,” Evans said. “And the use of that data is not apparent.”

Evans said the NMAA recently got away from its intended mission.

“I’d like to see a focus on (its) base mission, which is to facilitate student participation during the regular season and to manage state championship events.
“This board has taken significant steps in that direction.”