Time Out: April 14, 2010

“If you could take out athletics and transportation, this job wouldn’t be half bad.”
I’ve never forgotten that advice, delivered by a wise old sage during my first days serving as a superintendent of schools. I was the newly appointed superintendent at Andover Central School, a small rural school in New York’s Allegany County. The board of education had hired Ed Husted, a retired superintendent from Houghton to serve as a mentor during my transition.
In Ed’s opinion there are two public education topics that almost always trigger emotional, often illogical, almost always disproportionate reactions from the public: sports and transportation. Wednesday night’s public meeting addressing the proposed merger of the boys’ team sports programs from Andes and Margaretville was the latest in a long line of examples supporting Ed’s point of view.
Declining enrollment and the changing recreational interests of young people, have lowered projected participation numbers at Andes Central School below what is needed to field boys’ sports teams in 2010-2011. The ACS Board of Education has wrestled with this issue for some time and a committee of teachers, staff, students and adults from the community studied the issue this year and recommended that the board seek a team sports merger with neighboring Margaretville. Wednesday’s public meeting was a byproduct of the ACS Board’s request.
I served on the Andes committee, and, for the most part, we were blindsided by Margaretville’s public reaction to the request. More and more each year, Andes and Margaretville have worked collaboratively sharing resources that have included sports teams. For example, when Margaretville’s driver education car went down, they turned to Andes for help. A leaky gymnasium roof last year found the Andes Senior Game in boys’ basketball played in Margaretville. Five requests for sports mergers over a three-year period were approved from both sides of the mountain without a peep. Increasingly, the two schools were utilizing a “good neighbor policy” that saw each district reaching out to the other when they sought support in addressing common issues affecting kids.
At the initial step of the process Andes used to seek opportunities for their boys to play interscholastic athletics, the board of education wrote letters to four surrounding districts exploring possible interest in merging programs. All four districts wanted to talk. Downsville was eliminated because of transportation concerns and meetings between the superintendents and athletic directors of the other three schools; Margaretville, Delhi, and South Kortright, were held. Each district expressed an interest in merging boys’ team athletic programs.
With three possibilities, the ACS committee devised criteria they would use in making a recommendation to the board. Geographic proximity, level of competition, cost, previous collaborative successes, and long-term considerations of possible total school consolidation were all analyzed in coming to a decision point. Margaretville was selected as the first school of choice.
This sports merger request broke the previous pattern of cooperation. Parents in the Margaretville community were split in their reactions to the proposed merger. Some felt that MCS students would lose playing time to Andes students or possibly even be cut from a team. This was particularly the case involving soccer, a sport with strong participation numbers in Margaretville and the leading scorer in Section IV from Andes. Other Margaretville parents welcomed the possible addition of the Andes boys, feeling an athletic program is more than participation in a single sport and predicting adding athletes from Andes would help the MCS overall program become more competitive. Some people simply saw a handful of young people with nowhere to play and wanted to help out.
In the end, I suspect the Andes boys will get to play sports, but not necessarily at Margaretville. That’s okay. I only hope the emotions and reactions on display Wednesday by adults opposing the merger will not discourage the folks from Andes from seeking collaboration with Margaretville in the future. In my opinion, if that’s the case, a sports merger effort many thought was a potential win-win for both districts will result in a lose-lose on both sides of the mountain.