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Posted: Thursday September 17, 2009 11:19AM; Updated: Thursday September 17, 2009 4:09PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >

The impact of an Ohio school district's decision to cut sports

Story Highlights

In August, the South-Western City School Board voted to eliminate sports

A levy to raise taxes failed three times and will be voted on again in November

Some have transferred, others have stayed behind where Friday nights are dark

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Grove City football player Jordan Sturgell (center) is consoled by friends after finding out his district had cut high school sports.
Shari Lewis/The Columbus Dispatch

GROVE CITY, Ohio -- That first Friday at Grove City High was so quiet. Any other school year, the school's nationally acclaimed band would have ended the day by marching through the halls blasting the fight song. Any other school year, more than 11,000 would have gathered later that evening at the stadium behind the school to watch the Greyhounds -- better known as the Dawgs -- open their season. Any other school year, Friday would have meant something.

On Aug. 28, football players didn't come to school in their jerseys. Cheerleaders didn't wear their uniforms. The band didn't march, and the team didn't play. Exactly one hour after the final bell rang, the doors were locked. "Every day feels like a Tuesday," said Mike Mayers, the senior who thought he would start at quarterback this season. "Fridays are the days that everybody realizes things aren't the same."

Mayers no longer has a team because the South-Western City School Board (the district includes four high schools: Central Crossing, Grove City, Franklin Heights and Westland) took the unprecedented step of canceling all extra-curricular activities after voters failed to pass an operating levy Aug. 4. Now, the four high schools in Ohio's sixth-largest school district have no sports, no bands, no drama productions and no student council.

Friday doesn't matter anymore in the South-Western district, but Tuesday, Nov. 3, does. On that day district voters will go to the polls a fourth time to decide whether the district will receive the additional property tax dollars the school board insists it needs to bring back sports, clubs and busing for high school students.

The issue has turned neighbor against neighbor and caused shouting matches at school board meetings and on street corners. Those who oppose the levy argue that the district should find a more efficient way to spend the money it already has instead of asking for more tax dollars. The anti-levy crusaders appear to be the majority, evidenced by the fact that the levy already has been voted down three times. Those who support the levy warn that if the district doesn't offer a full program that includes a quality education and extra-curricular activities, parents will leave for another district that does. They also fear that another no vote will force the school board to slice into academic programs, which could trigger a mass exodus. That, they argue, would further erode the tax base and rob South-Western of many of its brightest students. To the pro-levy side, the Nov. 3 vote is nothing short of a referendum on the future of the community.

"This community is going to die," Grove City High football coach Matt Jordan said. "That's the big fear."

The situation in South-Western is extreme, but it isn't unusual. Across the nation, school districts are wrestling with a fundamental question. When money is tight, should taxpayers be funding high school sports? In Mount Vernon, N.Y., students, parents, coaches, teachers and community leaders raised nearly $1 million to fund the school district's sports program for the 2008-09 school year after voters twice declined to pass the district budget and forced the district into austerity mode. The budget was passed -- with funding for athletics -- for the current school year. In the East Side Union district in San Jose, Calif., sports were on the chopping block until this summer, when district officials reached an 11th-hour compromise to fund sports that included a $200 "donation" from each athlete.

What's happening at South-Western could happen almost anywhere in America, because South-Western could be almost anywhere in America. Its 127 square miles include rural areas with farms and rolling hills, tree-lined suburbs such as Grove City and urban areas within the Columbus city limits. According to district records, 52 percent of the district's 21,000 students receive either free or reduced lunch. South-Western also serves a large portion of the Columbus area's growing Somali population. That economic disparity was the reason the school board did not allow the schools to charge a participation fee to fund athletics this year. Board members worried that the district's lower-income students would be denied opportunities, so they elected to deny athletics to everyone.

Coaches, athletes have moved

On a Chamber of Commerce evening last week, the football field at Central Crossing High sat empty. The unlined grass was cut in neat rows with no cleat marks to break up the monotony. Over at Franklin Heights High, someone put a wreath on one of the locked gates shortly after school began. Now, the schools open one hour before the first bell and close one hour after the last one.

The decision to eliminate athletics has cost the district some of its coaches. While Jordan still teaches at Grove City, he serves as an assistant at North Pickerington High, 23 miles away. Other coaches simply have left. Mark Tremayne, the respected cross-country coach at Central Crossing, left to take a job at Hilliard Darby High.

Dozens of athletes also have left. Most are football players who don't have club or travel seasons like their basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball counterparts. To keep getting recruited, football players have to play for a high school. One example is former Franklin Heights lineman Cody Evans, a 6-foot-3, 350-pound junior who is drawing interest from a number of Football Bowl Subdivison schools. Evans landed at Briggs High in Columbus.

Some former South-Western students have had to file for emancipation from their parents so they can live in other school districts. One coach said he knows a perfectly happy couple that has legally separated so the student can live with one parent in an apartment in another district.

Jordan Sturgell, a former Grove City High football player, didn't have to go to that extreme, but his parents did have to fill out paperwork for a guardianship change so Sturgell can live with his aunt and uncle and attend Teays Valley High and play his senior season. Sturgell has received interest from schools in Division II, Division III and the Football Championship Subdivision. Sturgell is one of four former South-Western students on the roster at Teays Valley. A fifth decided to return to Grove City after the team's first game. "I can't sit out from football," said Sturgell, who plays running back, receiver and safety. "Football's my life. I love it." When Sturgell's new team opened the season Aug. 28 against Westfall, both starting quarterbacks were former Grove City players.

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