By Kristin Fox
Once again, the public comment period at this week’s meeting of the Jackson County Board of Education centered around the Jackson County middle school athletic program. After listening to the passionate and at times emotional concerns and comments from 17 people from the public, the school board faced the important decision of what the future of middle school sports would look like in Jackson County.
The board voted on three motions at this week’s meeting of the board at Smokey Mountain Elementary School with the final outcome determined in the passage of two motions. The board’s vote resulted in a compromise that includes a continuation of district middle school athletics and at the same time retains the school-based programs with provisions.
The compromise will require the community and the school board to work together to continue providing a successful sports program with district and school-based teams for the youth in Jackson County. The decision will not go into effect until the 2023-24 school year.
“I would like to start by saying this is not a decision that any of us take lightly; we have spent countless hours taking phone calls, reading emails and listening to the many stakeholders in our community,” said JCPS Board Member Abigail Clayton. “The consistency in all of these conversations has been the many benefits that athletics at any level provides our students.”
“Jackson County Public School is in a very unique situation, and we are just one of the few counties that does not have a middle school; this is a blessing and can be a curse,” she added.
Motion one – “to continue with district middle school athletics as they currently operate” passed with 4 to 1 vote with school board member Dr. Lynn Dillard casting the lone opposing vote.
“We need to put the pause on this, I feel like we have had a lot of emotions blogging for a middle school, and I’m thinking we are putting the cart before the horse,” said Dillard. “When we have a middle school, we can have this discussion again.”
The second motion “to retain school-based athletic teams with the condition that a minimum of two schools must field a team in any given sport with appropriate personnel. And, if there is only one team in any given sport, there will not be a season and no additional try-outs for district teams will occur. Furthermore, district teams will be prioritized over school teams regarding facilities.” This motion also passed with a 3 to 2 vote with board members Dillard and Wes Jamison opposing the vote.
A third motion was also voted on but failed with a 2 to 3 vote opposing the motion. This motion was to retain school-based sports with no conditions. Board members Jamison, Clayton, and Elizabeth Cooper voted against the motion.
Prior to the vote, JCPS Superintendent Dana L. Ayers reviewed the timeline the board and community have been working on this tough decision. At the December meeting of the board, Ayers led a discussion on the middle school athletics programs giving principals, athletic directors and coaches the opportunity to speak and share information. During the summer, the board engaged in productive conversations with athletic directors, principals and leadership teams discussing the struggles the school system has faced while running district middle school teams simultaneously with school-based teams.
One significant question that the board had 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.
The Blue Ridge Conference voted 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 the conference. If the board had voted to not continue with district sports it would have meant no more football, wrestling, cross country, or track & field for middle school-aged athletes.
“Although we don’t have a physical middle school, our program is connected to the high school program,” said Pam Shuler, Jackson County Middle School Athletic Director. “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,” she added. “Our high school programs have benefited from having middle school teams. The high school teams are stronger and more competitive.”
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. At times, both programs compete with each other for coaches.
Sometimes there are not enough players to field teams in both the district middle and 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. Having the two programs has often created 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.
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 transportation especially finding enough bus drivers, not enough administrative coverage, SRO officers, and supportive staff for both programs.
The vote does not affect 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 school 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 have 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, golf, softball, and track.
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.
“I am proud of our district seeking to take our athletic program to the next level several years ago when they began looking at district middle school teams,” said Clayton. “l appreciate the amount of time, effort and love that our coaches and athletic directors have put into making our district team successful all while continuing our school based sports. Thank you to our teachers and administrators who also worked hard to make sure that these opportunities are present for our kids.”
“Two common themes I have been reading and listening to input of others include school pride and the willingness for family members to step up and help,” she added. “School pride is very important, and everyone needs to realize that this can be accomplished both at the district and school-based middle school level, it will just take everyone working together.”
“Those athletes that try out for the district team should be proud to be a Mustang, but also know that they represent their individual school as well on that team; this is something that we need to foster in our youth,” said Clayton. Just because you play for the district team instead of your individual school, doesn’t make you any less of a Cardinal, Eagle, Rebel or Tarheel.
“We all need to realize all of these students and athletes will one day be Mustangs.”