Sidebar                                                  Page 16-17


The Mascot’s Central Place

in District Reorganization  



Andrew Fougner, principal of Red Lake County Central Elementary in Plummer, Minn., stands by the school’s new sign, which captures the mascots from both school districts in a consolidation.
What happens when a school district reorganization is first proposed in a rural area and the community members discover their high school and its athletic teams are likely to disappear? Reaction can be swift and severe.

In a state such as Illinois, where I spent 14 years in public education, emotions can rule the day when the matter is a merger. I’ve been part of one district consolidation effort and worked in a district that had experienced another.

The most recent, a failed attempt, took place during 2006-07. My district, a preK-12 system in Flora, Ill., was to be the receiving district. The sending district, in Clay City, Ill., approximately 10 miles away in the southeastern part of the state and a traditional rival of ours in athletics, was experiencing severe financial issues. The Clay City board of education decided it should close the high school and send the students to Flora High School.

Some time after Clay City residents voted down the proposal, a Clay City teacher shared with me the community’s mindset about the importance of interscholastic sports in a consolidation. “You know, you guys were the big, bad mean people. … The Flora kids are going to take all the (team roster) spots,” she said.

The successful attempt years earlier involved numerous small communities in southern Illinois’ Gallatin County, resulting in the Gallatin County Community Unit School District 7 in 1991. When the first attempt at consolidating three local community school districts into one countywide system failed, the pro-consolidation forces in the county didn’t give up trying.

A Mighty Bond
In my frustration, I would sometimes jokingly tell my colleagues only two priorities exist in high school: one is athletics and the other is sports. The proposed title of a book I am completing on the subject of consolidation is Mascot? What Mascot? Unwanted Change and School District Reorganization: An Emotional Event.

My attempt at humor raises the question just how important are high school sports to a rural community anyway?

During my 11 years in public school administration, I’ve seen school athletic programs serve as a bonding agent for small, rural towns that otherwise have limited opportunities for communitywide activities. Attending these sporting events is what people do in rural America, as normal as weekly church attendance.

At varsity football games, I’ve watched grown men sporting their letter jackets from a generation or two earlier discuss how they would have run the previous play on the field. I recall speaking with two individuals who never missed a home or away basketball game at the local high school in 30 years.

High school athletics are like a rejuvenating tonic for community members. As each sports season ends, it becomes part of the community’s history. Annual traditions of the football homecoming parade and the midwinter basketball tournament are major events on the town’s calendar. These morph into expectations concerning how everyday life should be, reinforcing concepts of community and individual identity. This is especially true as teenage athletes on a winning team develop a higher sense of personal worth and pass on these feelings to community members.

Emotional Moments
At the point district reorganization is recommended, educators are looking at economic advantages and increased educational opportunities for students, not athletic programs. Yet athletics are where a lot of the emotion lies that will influence the success or failure of a consolidation referendum. After all, rural community schools and their sports programs are symbolic representations of the people who made up the community in the past, who they are now and what they represent in terms of uniqueness to the world outside their environment.

This problem begins as communities decline. They experience reductions in population, the number of school-age children, local businesses and tax structure, leaving a situation where sustaining a school system in its preferred state is no longer feasible. With the local schools reorganizing, only a post office may be left in town. The reorganization becomes an outcome, not a cause of a community’s loss of identity. It is a product of the problem, not a reason for it.

Contested school district reorganizations are extremely emotional events, placing a rural community in a difficult spot, debating academic and curriculum opportunities against maintenance of the status quo.

Don, a veteran high school teacher in Gallatin County, Ill., shared his personal frustrations over his high school’s consolidation when he was a sophomore: “It seemed that program offerings and curriculum expansion seemed to be more important than community closeness and the values of a small community.”

An established athletics program supports this point of view by enabling community members to look inward in order to preserve their interpretations of identity, culture and societal expectations. At the same time, however, many of their children are looking outward by participating in summer league programs and forming friendships with athletes from other communities, becoming part of a larger geographic entity.

Even so, some community members will fight hard to prevent reorganization. I remember a conversation about resistance toward consolidation in Equality, Ill., a village with about 700 residents. “When the first consolidation came out, (Equality) had a star basketball player. He kept us from consolidating because (community members) wanted him to play.”

It is awfully hard to retire a mascot.

Gary May is a retired superintendent in Carbondale, Ill. E-mail: garybmay@aol.com  


Give your feedback

Share this article

Order this issue