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Jackson County Schools debate future of school sports vs district teams

By Kristin Fox

When the Jackson County Board of Education convenes for their January regular meeting, they will be faced with a difficult decision that will affect the middle school students in Jackson County Schools. The board will make the tough decision to keep district middle school athletic teams and eliminate school-based teams, or vice versa, or possibly some sort of other solution.

At the December meeting of the board, Jackson County Public Schools Superintendent Dana L. Ayers led a discussion on the middle school athletics programs giving principals, athletic directors and coaches the opportunity to speak and share information. At the meeting the issue was only discussed with no decision made and no vote taken; however, a vote is expected at the January meeting. Whatever decision is made in January will not go into effect until the 2023-24 school year.

Since the summer, a group of athletic directors, principals and leadership teams have been discussing the struggles the school system has faced while running district middle school teams simultaneously with school-based teams.

The discussion does not include the Blue Ridge and Blue Ridge Early College as they do not participate in district middle school sports although the Blue Ridge middle school team currently plays the school-based teams across the district as well as schools outside the district. 

The district-level middle school teams are composed of athletes from all four elementary schools in what Ayers called the Sylva central/Whittier area. The district middle school teams include students from Cullowhee Valley, Fairview, Scotts Creek, and Smokey Mountain Elementary. Likewise, Jackson County also has school teams at each of those schools that run concurrently, unless they don’t have enough to make a team. Football, wrestling, track and cross country are the only sports that there is only a district middle school team.

This year for the first time, Jackson County has fielded district middle teams in all the sports that are available at Smoky Mountain High School except tennis and swimming. Currently, Jackson County fields district middle school teams for football, cross country, soccer, volleyball, wrestling, cheer, basketball, baseball, softball and track. For the first time, the county middle school athletic program has added golf this school year. 

Tryouts for the district middle school teams are followed by tryouts for the school-based teams if there are enough athletes to compose a school team. According to Ayers sometimes there are not enough athletes remaining at a school to compose school-based teams.

In addition, there are multiple teams through the Jackson County Recreation Department as well as Jackson County Youth League. This year, the youth league was unable to field a middle school boys or girls team as there were not enough players.

The Jackson County School System faces many struggles with having both a district middle school team and school-based teams. One struggle is that the school system has a hard time retaining quality coaches for both programs. As stated, there are sometimes not enough players to field teams in both the district middle and school-based teams.

Finding enough locations for practices and games is an enormous problem. Often there are not enough fields and gyms for both programs to have practices and games. Other barriers faced by the school systems are finding enough bus drivers, administrative coverage, SRO officers, and support staff for both programs.

Ayers stated having the two programs often creates a divisive climate between the two programs as they attempt to run concurrently and want to have the best players on each of their teams. At times, the programs also compete with each other for coaches. 

Sometimes schools struggle to have enough players on the school-based teams. For the last few years, the school-based teams have not had enough boys and girls to field separate soccer teams and instead have been running coed teams.

Transportation is another struggle for running both programs at the same time, one that has been widely discussed during the meetings over the last several months.

“Transportation is a huge issue we have discussed several times,” said Ayers. “We all want our students to have equitable access and opportunities.”

“Money is not an issue,” she added. “It is not trying to figure out how to run both programs because we are doing that successfully now.”

One significant question that the board has discussed is what would happen if the Jackson County middle school program only participated in sports in which they cannot field a team in the school-based sports program i.e., football, wrestling, cross country and track and field in the conference and pulled out of the other sports. Would the conference allow Jackson County to remain in the conference?

Pam Shuler Director for the Jackson County Middle School Athletic District presented the situation that Jackson County is grappling with to the athletic directors of the Blue Ridge Conference. The group then voted, with Shuler refraining from the vote, on whether to let Jackson County remain in the conference participating in only a few sports (football, wrestling, cross county, track & field). The group voted unanimously to not let Jackson County remain in the conference if they were only playing in those sports in which they could not field school-based teams. Either Jackson County was all in or all out of playing in conference. 

“The athletic directors voted unanimously to refuse to let Jackson County remain in the conference if we decided to only participate in some sports but not all,” said Shuler. “We must be all in or all out. It would mean no more football, wrestling, cross country or track & field.” 

“If we did away with the middle school program it would be devastating to our high school programs,” she added. “Although we don’t have a physical middle school, our program is connected to the high school program. The teams we compete against are the same teams the athletes will be playing against in high school. Our athletes are learning what it means to be a part of a school team and what the expectations will be when they get to high school.”

“Since our feeder programs started, we have gained participation numbers and built strong programs at the middle school level Our high school programs have benefited from having middle school teams. The high school teams are stronger and more competitive.”

All schools that Jackson County competes with in the conference have feeder programs for their high schools.

One coach from one of the school-based teams spoke to the board in favor of keeping the school-based sports.

“At Scotts Creek, we push academics,” said Clinton Irons, Scotts Creek basketball coach. “I have benched several players already this season for low grades. I would rather lose a game so my boys will respect me and do good with their academics.”

“I don’t think district will be as firm as we are; it’s personal to us,” he added. “We all think the same way, we take pride in our boys, we take pride in walking down the hallways.”

“It’s all about pride, and it’s more personal at the school level than is it at district,” said Irons. “You pick 15 players out of four or five schools, that’s not right when you have so much other talent. What are those other kids going to do if we eliminate school-based teams?”

The next meeting of the Jackson County School Board will be held on Tuesday, January 24, 2023, at 6:00 p.m. at the Smokey Mountain Elementary School. The public is invited to attend the meeting. If you want to speak to the school board, you much sign up before the school board meeting begins. Time to speak during public comment is limited to three minutes.

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