By JACOB HOAG

Sports Writer

PORT CHARLOTTE — Dark clouds typically loom over the fields during the first few weeks of high school football in Florida, but this year Mother Nature isn’t the issue.

As teams around the state make final preparations for next week’s Kickoff Classic preseason games, some, like Port Charlotte High, are caught in the middle of a labor dispute that threatens to dampen opening day.

The FHSAA is in a battle with three of the state’s officiating associations, which are threatening to go on strike if they do not receive a pay increase for the upcoming season.

The South Gulf Officials Association which covers Lee County as well as Port Charlotte, LaBelle and Moore Haven high schools, is the closest agency planning to hold out. The other two are the Treasure Coast Officials Association in Martin County and East Coast (Palm Beach County) association.

Locally Port Charlotte, along with the Lee County schools, is caught in the crossfire. Though there is plenty of uncertainty surrounding the situation, Pirates Athletic Director Bob Bruglio says the school has been assured they will play next Friday. But the plan for who will officiate the Pirates game is still up in the air, he says.

South Gulf officials are responsible for 10 preseason games on Aug. 16, including Port Charlotte’s matchup against North Fort Myers. Though no other area school uses South Gulf officials, they would be affected if they were to travel to a Lee County school.

The FHSAA said in a release that there is a contingency plan in place, but won’t reveal what it is until the strike actually happens. An FHSAA meeting is scheduled Aug. 26, three days after the first regular season game, to address the issue.

“We have 25 officials associations in the state — 22 of those are fully registered and ready for next week,” FHSAA spokesperson Kyle Niblett said in a news release. “In the state of Florida, we have 552 football teams fielding a team this fall ... 87 percent of our schools have officials for this season.

“We believe in good faith the number will be 100 percent, but we have a plan in place shall the 71 schools not have enough available registered officials in those areas.”

The FHSAA has already confirmed there will be a pay increase for the 2020-2021 season, but the officials want the increase to be implemented this year.

South Gulf officials said the FHSAA’s announced pay raise for 2020-21 does not change their organization’s stance on the hold out. The association reiterates the refs just want to be compensated fairly for their time.

“We are working with area schools to negotiate an increase in our fees for the 2019 season,” South Gulf posted on its Facebook page. “We have only received two small pay increases over the past 15 years and our compensation is no where near what it is in neighboring states as well as youth and adult leagues in our area that we also officiate.

“Most of us are under no illusion that we are going to get rich working games, but that doesn’t mean we don’t want to be able to at least make a profit after subtracting the costs involved such as uniforms, equipment, training, registration fees, travel, etc. Men and women just don’t want the responsibility and grief for the current compensation.”

The FHSAA sets the maximum pay rate officials can receive and Florida is one of the lowest states in terms of paying high school officials.

For football, it’s $65 with the addition of travel stipends, which is far less than surrounding states. For reference, Georgia, Alabama and Mississippi pay varsity football officials $100 a game.

Florida schools also pay a $500 fee at the beginning of each season, which covers booking fees, assigning fees, training fees, etc., according to the FHSAA. That fee could skyrocket to cover the pay increase.

With the standoff affecting more than just the officials, for some coaches it begs the question: should it be about the money?

“It’s disappointing that it’s come to this,” Port Charlotte football coach Jordan Ingman said. “No coach does anything for pay. We would never as coaches go on strike, and we’re all underpaid compared to other states. That’s not something we ever bring up and we would never let that jeopardize our athletes’ experience.

“The reality is (the athletes) work 11 months a year for football season and we’re gonna do everything as a coaching staff to make Friday nights as special as possible, and this year that meant we have to pay our officials more just to make sure we don’t lose a Friday night game.”

The final day for officials to register is Monday. Bruglio said the affected schools should know more then about what the plan is going forward.

Email Jacob Hoag at jacob.hoag@yoursun.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJacobHoag.

Email Jacob Hoag at jacob.hoag@yoursun.com and follow him on Twitter @ByJacobHoag.

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