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Middle school sports cutback angers families

ASHLAND — Middle school parents and students expressed outrage Tuesday that the Ashland School District — and all others in Jackson County — will cut after-school sports for middle-schoolers next academic year to save money.

"Sports is always one of the first things to go," said Stephen Garrett, whose two daughters play basketball at the middle school. "It's important for teenagers to be involved in sports so they keep their feet on the ground and have something fun to do."

Superintendent Juli Di Chiro announced the decision at the School Board meeting Monday night, saying she and all other superintendents in the region decided in February to eliminate middle school sports because of the expected severity of the funding shortfall from the state.

"It's really unfortunate that we're at this funding level, but this is where we're at," she said Tuesday.

Di Chiro said she couldn't recall which superintendent came up with the idea to cut middle school sports. The group first discussed it a few months ago during its monthly regional meeting, she said.

The move will save the Ashland School District $110,000 next academic year, Di Chiro said. The district is trying to close an expected $1.3 million budget gap because of reduced state funding and a drop in enrollment.

Money for middle school sports comes from the district's Youth Activities and Academics Levy, funded by taxpayers. The district now will use that money for other general-fund expenses, which is allowed under the levy rules and doesn't need to be approved by voters, Di Chiro said.

"We're a little different in Ashland because we have our Youth Activities and Academics Levy, and we want to be sensitive to our community because of that, but basically if this is happening in our whole region, there's not much we can do about it anyhow, because if we had teams, there'd be no one for us to play," she said.

Some parents said Tuesday they feel it's unfair for the district not to use some of the levy money for middle school sports, because they believe the levy was marketed to voters as a way to save the district's sports programs.

"I think they should ask the voters before they do something like this," said Tyler Timmons, whose two middle school children were hoping to play sports next academic year. "This is terrible."

Principal Steve Retzlaff told the School Board Monday that he's concerned that eliminating after-school sports could leave students unsupervised while their parents are still at work.

"We see it as a really big loss to the middle school," he said. "Middle school is a really important time in kids' lives."

Almost 50 percent of the school's 540 students are involved in after-school sports, he said. Retzlaff is working to partner with community sports clubs and coaches to offer some alternative to after-school sports, but it's unclear what that will look like, he said.

After-school clubs, including chess, gardening and drama, still will be available for students, he said.

Jim Hagemann, who coaches the middle school's track, football and basketball teams, said eliminating after-school sports will mean that low-income students aren't able to play, because club sports can be expensive.

"A lot of the kids here, their families don't have the money and resources to keep them in sports," he said. "They're the ones who are really going to miss out."

The move also could mean that fewer students get to learn how to play a sport, because the middle school has a no-cut policy, which enables anyone who is interested to join the team, regardless of athletic ability.

"Kids who maybe don't have the athletic ability now won't get a chance to develop it over a few years," Hagemann said.

Hagemann, who also teaches physical education at the middle school, will be out of three of his jobs next year, when after-school sports are eliminated, he said.

Some parents said they're concerned that without sports, students may be less motivated to do well in school.

"Sports are very important to my son and he wants to play them if he goes to the middle school next year," said Maisie Moyers, whose son, Keenan, is in fifth grade at John Muir School.

"Sports are basically my life," Keenan said. "It's not fair to take them away."

Hannah Guzik is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach her at 541-708-1158 or hguzik@dailytidings.com