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April 5th, 2006 Cliff Pfenning | News Stories
 

Class Warfare

Statewide high-school sports reform may be fixing something that isn't messed up.

     
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As the State Board of Education weighs a major overhaul of Oregon high-school sports, many are shouting that the current setup isn't broken.

If you don't read the sports pages, you wouldn't know how proposed changes by the Oregon School Activities Association have angered many parents and coaches of the state's 100,000 high-school athletes.

The association governing high-school sports currently groups athletic programs into four classifications, based on school enrollment. The association voted last October to change that setup into six classifications, still based on enrollment but with hopes that additional classifications will result in more evenly matched schools.

And that's ginned up opposition from places like Medford and Eugene because of the gerrymandering required to make it work.

There, parents and coaches search for the logic behind lumping distant schools into a league that would require seven-hour round trips on a good day.

Closer to home, the plan bypassed a proposal by Tigard High athletic director Kevin Bryant to realign Portland-area leagues by economics, which can play a role in who's most competitive, rather than by enrollment.

David Douglas, for example, is Oregon's largest high school but rarely wins in the state playoffs. About 70 percent of the East Portland school's 2,569 students are poor enough to qualify for free and reduced-price lunches.

By contrast, 1,100-student Jesuit, in Washington County, won state titles in six team sports and played for the championship in two others during the 2004-05 school year.

Bryant's plan would have put Jesuit in the same league with other affluent schools such as Lake Oswego and Lakeridge.

The association's plan puts private school Jesuit with poorer schools like Aloha and Liberty, whose students can't compete with their Jesuit peers' access to the best off-season camps and travel teams.

"There's plenty of reasons for people not to be interested in high-school sports," says Bryant. "We don't need to give them any more reasons."

State schools Superintendent Susan Castillo put a halt to the reclassification March 13, saying the OSAA failed to ask the state Board of Education for approval before OK'ing the controversial changes. Castillo on Tuesday told the OSAA and school districts that opposed its plan to enter mediation.

If decision-makers are unwilling to realign based on economics, some officials with smaller, poorer schools say it's best to leave the system alone.

That's because half the 82 schools in the highest enrollment level of 4A had either a team or individual that won a state title during the 2004-05 school year. North Portland's Jefferson, one of the tiniest and poorest 4A high schools, annually competes for the boys basketball state title.

"Money definitely makes a difference in high-school sports," says Madison boys basketball coach Chuck Matthews. "But we can beat the odds and make the playoffs anyway. I know our kids would still want to play at the highest level of competition."

OSAA executive director Tom Welter says the board should stick with the association's plan because it will offer more schools more chances an opportunity to compete.

"We're not focused on winning, but on the chance for success," Welter says. "By providing a more level playing field, we're giving more schools the chance at success."

While the state board mulls over reclassification's fate, the uncertainty leaves Oregon's athletic directors in limbo about scheduling for the fall.

"What we really need is some resolution," Bryant says, "so we know which way to go."

 
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