Equity at center of school district sports debate

Plan proposes dual programs; critics say the money's not there

Posted: Thursday, November 08, 2007

Smack in the middle of the Next Generation sports huddle is a buzzword driving the plan for a new athletics program in the city's high schools: equity.

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It means even poor kids could play sports, and the high cost of Juneau's pay-to-play high school sports program would be largely removed. Under the current program, students have to pay $500 to $2,000 to participate on a high school sports team.

Equity is one of the key principles in Next Generation, the planning process for the curriculum and activities at the Mendenhall Valley high school, under construction, and the existing high school downtown.

"An equitable sports program offers all the activities that kids are interested in with an opportunity to participate regardless of financial status," said Sandi Wagner, Juneau-Douglas sports and activities director.

Critics say equity requires more money for more teams and coaches, even though the Juneau School District's already-thin activities budget suffered from an $88,000 shortfall this year.

School district officials say the community asked for a sports and activities program that attracts more teenagers and lowers the financial barriers that keep out poor kids who want to play.

The district believes extracurricular activity will improve test scores and reach the disaffected mass of students dropping out before graduation.

For now the district is proposing a dual sports program: Two schools each with their own teams for each sport offered, except football. Only Juneau-Douglas High School will have varsity sports. Football would be offered at only JDHS downtown, and Valley residents who wanted to play on the team would have the option to attend JDHS instead of Thunder Mountain High School in the Valley.

Creating equity will cost money, and swim coach John Wray would like to know were the school district thinks that money will come from.

"Equity cannot be discussed without a funding plan," he said.

Wray coached this year's Juneau-Douglas girls swim team to a state championship last weekend and then resigned. He did so partly in response to the Next Generation sports plan.

"It may result in only upper-middle class students playing," he said. "Basically that's how it is right now."

Achieving equity is the hard part, according to Patti Bippus, principal of Thunder Mountain and a committee member. She said students should be able to join any team they want without worrying about funding it. Parents should not have to write checks for their child to participate nor worry about whether they can afford the shoes their son or daughter needs to play.

"If possible that would be ideal," said Johan Dybdahl, Juneau Assembly member and father of a past JDHS basketball star.

Any step toward reducing the cost of participating on a sports team would remove a big burden on many families, he said.

But in terms of funding sources, the city already gives the maximum amount of money allowed under state law to the school district, Dybdahl said.

The school district has offered no budget for the equity plan as it receives public comment this week and next.

The Next Generation Secondary Planning Committee showed the Juneau School Board on Tuesday its sports and activities plan.

School Board member Margo Waring criticized the committee on Tuesday for not presenting a budget with its proposal.

"We've not seen a financial plan, and it distresses me more and more," she said during Tuesday's work session.

The draft Next Generation plan proposes to continue the existing sports programs at JDHS while adding six junior varsity sports at Thunder Mountain next fall.

The proposed dual sports program draws attention to the "championship factor" in the sports equity debate.

"I'm not sure that having a full (dual) sports program will work out," said Eric Gross, Juneau-Douglas 11th-grade athlete. He is afraid that teams would loose competitiveness as the limited student body is spread between two schools in an effort to create equity.

Assistant Superintendent Charla Wright said that winning championships is not the goal of Next Generation.

On the other hand, Wright believes that more access to more sports opportunities will bring a wider and more diverse population of students into high school sports than exists now.

"We could have two competitive teams," she said.

• Contact Greg Skinner at 523-2258 or greg.skinner@juneauempire.com.

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