The Collision of Athletics & Consolidation

Interscholastic sports play a pivotal role helping or hindering decisions about school district mergers by BILL GRAVES

For decades, people questioned the sense of having two school districts, each with its own superintendent, central office and high school, operating in the same small town of The Dalles on the banks of the Columbia River in north-central Oregon. But election campaigns to consolidate repeatedly failed because each community had strong emotional ties to its high school and varsity athletic teams. To lose a school and its colors and mascot would be to surrender one’s identity.

The Chenowith School District, with 900 students, encompassed the lower-income, west end of town overlooking the defunct aluminum plant. Residents gathered Friday nights in the fall at the Wahtonka High School football field to cheer madly for their team, the Eagles. Three miles away, The Dalles High School Indians drew fans from the more affluent east side of town and a district twice Chenowith’s size.

TMB PanthersWhen the Balaton School District in southwestern Minnesota merged with the Tracy district, football players and other athletes began competing for the TMB Panthers. Photo Courtesy of Tracy Headlight Herald

The merger of the two finally succeeded in 2002 after Ernie Blatz, a longtime resident, discovered a little-used 1959 law that allowed organizers to lump the election results from each district together for a final count.

“I’m a locksmith, and I know there is more than one way to open a door,” said Blatz, who led the drive to consolidate and now chairs the board of the merged school district.

Both school systems were hurting financially, Blatz said. A majority of residents in The Dalles district could see possible financial and academic advantages in absorbing their smaller neighbor. The consolidation proposal passed 4,388 to 2,710, though a narrow majority in the two all-Chenowith precincts voted against it. The districts unified into the North Wasco County School District for the 2004-05 school year, and students now play for The Dalles-Wahtonka Eagle Indians.

Not surprisingly, some residents of the former Cheno-with districts still harbor hard feelings about the demise of the Wahtonka Eagles and the loss of their high school, now used by the district as an alternative school.

Identity Loss
Communities often resist consolidation to protect their sports teams. But in some places school districts have lost so many students they can no longer field a starting lineup and face little choice except to merge operations to sustain reasonable quality athletics and academics for their students.

School leaders in Montana, Michigan, Minnesota, Texas, Oregon and Arkansas consistently reported the most difficult, emotional and contentious challenge in consolidating small districts is dealing with the fears rural towns have of losing their identities, which are inextricably entangled with athletic teams, colors and mascots.

“The typical statement I hear is, ‘If our school closes, our town is next. It will die,’” said Darrell C. Rud, executive director of the Montana Association of School Superintendents. That’s why politicians are loath even to raise the issue, he said.

Consolidation of school districts has been unfolding in the United States since early in the last century when there was a flurry of unifications that reduced the number of the nation’s school districts from 117,108 in 1939 to 17,995 by 1968, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Since then, consolidations have continued at a slower pace, bringing the number of districts down to 13,862 by the fall of 2006.

One reason the pace has dropped off in Michigan is that school districts have discovered they can share costs for security, busing, food and other services yet still preserve their identities and separate athletic teams, said Jack Roberts, executive director of the Michigan High School Athletics Association. (See related story, page 28.)

“There is a tremendous amount of sharing and cooperation and consolidation of services, more than the public recognizes,” he said. Districts “want to be efficient, but they would like to have two teams and double the opportunity for kids to participate.”

In many cases, states mandated mergers. Oregon saw nearly 100 school districts merge in more than 40 consolidations during the 1990s as the result of a state law requiring high school districts to combine with neighboring elementary districts. In June 2007, Maine adopted legislation that requires the state’s 290 school districts to seek partners for reorganization into approximately 80 regional school units, primarily to save money. So far about 80 districts have successfully consolidated into 27 regional units, reducing the total number of Maine districts to 214. Another 124 districts remain out of compliance, mostly because their voters rejected consolidation.

Many residents in the small town of Biggers, Ark., also objected to a consolidation in 2004, forced by a state law requiring any school district with fewer than 350 students to merge with a neighboring district, said J.M. Edington. He was superintendent at that time of the Biggers-Reyno district, the product of a consolidation in the 1960s, which sprawled over farming country in the northeastern corner of the state.

Biggers-Reyno became part of the Corning School District about 15 miles away, but continued to operate its 110-student middle/high school in Biggers for two more years. The Biggers-Reyno High Buffaloes fielded teams in boys and girls basketball, baseball and softball.

After the schools closed on June 30, 2006, about 40 Biggers-Reyno High students transferred to the 520-student Corning middle and high school, and the Biggers community was left without interscholastic sports and a school that had been in existence since 1897.

“A unifying element of the community was the sports team,” said Edington, who is now superintendent of the Corning district. “It was an emotional and difficult time, more so for the adults than for the students.”

Uncertain Benefits
After the long struggle to consolidate North Wasco County School District in Oregon, it remains unclear whether the consolidation brought the benefits people hoped for, said Candy Armstrong, superintendent of the new district. What soon became evident were expenses people hadn’t considered, she said. Savings in administrative and central-office costs were washed out by the need to equalize wages, which meant bringing the salaries of the lower-paid Chenowith staff and faculty up to the level of The Dalles employees, she said. The district faced expenses of buying new uniforms for the athletic teams.

Tradeoffs exist, Armstrong said. Students have more chances to participate on sports teams in smaller schools, but the consolidated district offers them more choices. “If kids want to be involved,” she added, “there are all sorts of sports and clubs and programs that are offered for them.”

In rural north-central Montana, the 65-student Chester School District near Great Falls joined forces four years ago with the 275-student Joplin-Inverness School District (created by a consolidation in the 1970s). The benefits have been clear, said Cal Moore, superintendent of the new district. Tax rates have gone down, and student test scores have gone up.

The Chester High Coyotes and the Joplin-Inverness High Rams have been replaced by the Chester-Joplin-Inverness Hi-Line Hawks. “We are very competitive,” said Moore. “We are able to maintain numbers in sports because of consolidation. … What happened here ultimately was pretty positive.”

Power of Identity
Today school district consolidation has become largely an issue for rural America, where communities are losing children as families get smaller and family farms sell out to corporate enterprises.

“We were losing about 10 kids a year,” said Tim Tharp, who helped lead the consolidation of the Dutton/Brady School District in the farming country of north-central Montana. Tharp is now superintendent of the 100-student district as well as athletic director and principal of the middle and high schools.

Small towns such as Dutton and Brady rely on their high schools as community centers for sports events, school plays, civic meetings and socializing. School colors and a mascot provide a common thread that runs through generations as symbols of a town’s character and history. That’s why adults have more emotional difficulty accepting consolidation than do students, school leaders say.

“If the adults handled it as well as the kids do, almost every consolidation would work out beautifully,” said Rud of the Montana superintendents group.

Indeed, choosing a mascot and school colors proved to be the most painful step in consolidating The Dalles and Chenowith districts, said Armstrong, who at the time was an assistant superintendent for The Dalles. Initially, the school boards left it up to students to come up with a name for the high school, the school colors and a mascot. The students wanted a fresh start and proposed calling the new school Columbia Gorge High. They chose silver and blue for school colors and called themselves the River Hawks.

Adults in both districts exploded in protest. More than 700 alumni from The Dalles High School signed a petition asking to keep their name, mascot and colors. Some members of the Chenowith community started looking for ways to break the merger.

The newly formed school board rejected the student plan and eventually settled on a compromise that retained vestiges of both districts. The high school was called The Dalles-Wahtonka High. The mascots of the two schools were combined into the Eagle Indians, and the merged school borrowed gold from Wahtonka and crimson from The Dalles as its colors. The varsity football team now plays its home games on the Wahtonka field; the basketball team plays in the The Dalles high school gym.

LeAnn Ellett, formerly a member of the Chenowith school board and now vice chair of the merged North Wasco County board, fought the consolidation. “The people in Chenowith were perfectly happy with being in a smaller district,” she said.

Now her two daughters are among nearly 1,000 students attending The Dalles-Wahtonka High, where it is tougher for students to land a roster spot on a varsity team. Because many Chenowith students come from low-income families, Ellett added, they cannot always afford to participate in specialized youth sports leagues that give students an edge in later high school competition.

“They might have been stars if they had been at the littler (Wahtonka) high school,” she said. “Instead, they are not playing.”

Though some hard feelings persist five years later, the community generally is coming together around the consolidated North Wasco County School District, said Armstrong, in her seventh year as superintendent.

“One thing that helped this year: Our football team did very well,” she said.

Cooperation First
In Minnesota, hundreds of school districts have forestalled consolidation by forging agreements in which they create common athletic teams, while also sharing some services and staff, including central administrators and buses. Minnesota was the first state to allow what it calls cooperative sponsorships in 1979. Today, more than 1,000 school districts join forces to field sports teams and share resources, and several other states now allow cooperative sponsorships, said David Stead, executive director of the Minnesota State High School League, which governs interscholastic athletics.

The cooperative agreements allow some smaller communities to continue providing competitive sports teams without merging districts and sacrificing school identities. In recent years, even larger school districts have entered agreements to field joint teams in emerging sports, such as lacrosse, Stead added.

This year the 580-student Nashwauk-Keewatin School District in northern Minnesota, created through a consolidation decades ago, merged its high school football and track and field teams with those of the neighboring 1,100-student Greenway Public Schools. The new football team shared by the two high schools, which are 16 miles apart, is called GNK for now while the district takes its time to pick a new name. The team takes green from Greenway and blue from Nashwauk-Keewatin as its colors. GNK played three games this year in Greenway and two at Nashwauk-Keewatin and reached the playoffs’ second round, said Mark Adams, superintendent of the latter.

“We provide more opportunities in collaboration than we would if we remained on our own independently,” said Adams, noting that at the same time, the two districts have retained their independence. “Our schools are the pulse and heartbeats of their communities so any loss of identity on either side is simply unacceptable.”

While some districts in decline eventually have no choice but to consolidate, cooperative agreements can sometimes extend the process and ease the pain by bringing about consolidation through a gentle series of steps. The tiny Balaton School District in southwestern Minnesota has been merging with the 850-student Tracy Area Public Schools over the last decade, making the final consolidation this year relatively painless and supported by nearly 90 percent of voters, said David Marlette, superintendent of the Tracy district, itself a creation by an earlier consolidation of several districts.

Balaton took its first step toward joining its neighbor a decade ago by sending its high school students over to Tracy Area High School 12 miles to the east. The latter school retained the initials of Balaton and other high schools it has absorbed by adopting TMB as the name of its athletic teams, now known as the Panthers. Two years ago, Balaton transferred its middle school students and this year gave up its elementary school, sending its last 45 students to its neighbor.

A School’s Demise
Though sometimes necessary, communities pay a steep price when they give up their schools. Parents in Brady, Mont., realized they had no choice but to send their children to the neighboring Dutton High School if their children were to continue having sufficient options for classes, sports and activities. Both districts were losing students. The two schools combined their sports teams into the Dutton/Brady DiamondBacks in 2001, taking Brady’s black and Dutton’s red for their uniform colors and putting to rest the Dutton Cardinals and the Brady Bulldogs.

“That laid the foundation for the 2005-06 consolidation,” said Tim Tharp, the superintendent.

But the merger complicated athletics participation and support. “To play football (at Dutton), my son had to drive 45 miles one way,” said Tedi Bishop, a grant director and careers teacher in the consolidated district. “It is hard all the way around.”

In addition, Brady residents, who let their passions loose at Bulldog sports events, don’t participate as much now, Bishop said, noting, “The community has diminished.”

She admits the merged school provided her two children, now in college, with a fine education.

That also was the goal of a decision by residents of Allison, Texas, in the state’s northeast panhandle, to merge with the Fort Elliott Consolidated Independent School District 10 miles away. But keeping varsity teams alive in the sports-crazed state also was an impetus.

“We were getting so low on students we could hardly fill the team,” said Bret Begert, a former Allison school board member who now sits on the Fort Elliott board. Some elementary school classes were down to a single student, and the high school had only five boys, he said.

So to offer opportunities to be in school plays, music, drama and other activities, Allison residents gave up their high school.

“It was the lifeblood of our community,” Begert said. “My dad had been on the school board, and my granddad. Allison School was part of our life. … Without the school bringing us all together, you don’t see one another much except at funeral dinners and things like that.”

Starting Fresh
As in much of the nation, the pace of school district mergers has slowed in Texas in recent years. The state has recorded fewer than 30 consolidations since 1983. Fort Elliott was created out of earlier consolidations in 1992 when the Briscoe School District merged with the nearby Mobeetie School District. The Mobeetie Hornets and Briscoe Broncos are no more on the playing fields. Today they, along with the Allison Antelopes, are part of the Fort Elliott Cougars.

Mobeetie and Briscoe school board members agreed in 1992 to start fresh with the Fort Elliott name for their unified district. The two boards also let students choose the Cougars mascot and the district’s red and black colors.

Even those who opposed the consolidations understood why they were necessary, said Richard Meadows, a rancher and member of the Briscoe and the Fort Elliott boards for 36 years. The 150-student district will open a new 44,000-square-foot, $6 million school for students in grades 6 through 12 this year. Students now can participate in basketball, six-man football, volleyball, track, tennis, golf, choir, Future Farmers of America, one-act plays and a broader menu of advanced academic courses.

One drawback is that the district now must pull together students scattered over a 500-square-mile area, which has meant adding bus routes to reduce travel time. But Meadows and other school leaders say they are convinced that while consolidation has been hard on Allison and Briscoe and Mobeetie, it has been good for their children.

“Education may not be the most important thing we do in life,” said Meadows, “but it is real close.”

Bill Graves is an education writer with The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. E-mail: billgraves1@verizon.net