By DEREK WILEY
Of the Keizertimes
Salem-Keizer won’t have to wait much longer to find out if five of its high school athletic teams will compete in a league with three Bend schools beginning this fall.
After listening to eight hours of testimony from the Salem-Keizer school district and the Oregon School Activities Association on Monday, Jan. 29, justice Michael Gillette said he would produce a written decision in 10 days to two weeks.
“I will try to do it as quickly as I possibly can,” said Gillette, a retired Oregon supreme court judge. “I’ve written over a thousand published legal opinions and this is not simple… I haven’t the foggiest idea. I will end up writing an opinion that comes out each way and then reading them both and find out which one makes the most sense to me.”
OSAA decided on Oct. 16 that McNary, South Salem, Sprague, West Salem and McKay would be placed in a league with Bend, Mountain View and Summit. Salem-Keizer then appealed the decision in November.
The school district went first at the appeal hearing, arguing that the OSAA did not stick to their criteria of safety, minimizing loss of instructional time, cost and school enrollment data, but instead placed McNary and four Salem schools with Bend because of “competitive balance.”
“We win or die on this case whether they followed the criteria,” said Paul Dakopolos, the school district’s lawyer, in his closing argument.
In his opening statement, Dakopolos said, “seeking competitive balance is impossible in Oregon.”
Alan Bushong, executive director of CCTV and a witness for the school district, noted Jesuit’s 63 state championships over the last 11 years.
“Maybe it’s noble, but it’s not happening,” Bushong said of competitive balance. “You can’t do it.”
Peter Weber, OSAA executive director, argued competitive balance fell under the criteria of school enrollment data. He noted that Oregon moved from a four to six-class system in 2006 due to competitive balance and that it wasn’t based on state championships but how teams do during the regular season.
“Being successful varies by school and community,” Weber said.
Frank Coburn, girls basketball coach and parent at McKay, argued that OSAA’s public meetings to look at classification were inconvenient, during the work day in Wilsonville. He also felt the OSAA wasn’t being transparent with its information, adding he couldn’t find it on their Website. Coburn gave testimony at the Oct. 14 meeting but said, “It felt like the room and board was full of people who had already made a decision.”
Answering questions from OSAA attorney Jonathan Radmacher, Weber testified that the Classification and Districting Committee’s first draft was released in October, 2016, a year before the executive board made its final decision, and had all six Salem-Keizer schools, including North Salem, in a league with Bend. The committee proposed 19 drafts over the year and all updates were emailed to every superintendent, athletic director and principal in the state. The drafts were also posted to the OSAA Website.
“We wanted people to get the information,” said Weber, who also noted that more than 200 people from all areas of the state at both small and big schools testified in person at one of the public hearings.
Salem-Keizer superintendent Christy Perry talked about the student poverty in the district and that extra travel would be another barrier for students to get a diploma. She pointed out that many student athletes struggle to pay any fees and don’t have access to private lessons. But Weber and Radmacher noted that schools with free and reduced lunch had the opportunity to move down a classification. North Salem did. McKay did not.
Perry argued that poverty wasn’t just a McKay issue, pointing to the 41 percent poverty level at McNary. She said athletics “keeps students in school and get them across the (graduation) stage.”
Salem-Keizer said that each of its schools would make around 58 trips to Bend each year. Using charter buses, due to the bus driver shortage, that would cost the district $2,000 per trip. The district is also estimating $14,280 per school for substitute teachers while coaches who also teach miss class time to travel with their teams.
To lessen the amount of trips, Weber showed a sample of creative scheduling the OSAA received from Bend athletic director Dave Williams. Under the example, sports like cross country, track and tennis that have a state qualifying meet at the end of the season wouldn’t play a league schedule. Williams estimated a total of 136 trips from Bend to Salem-Keizer for all three Bend schools.
OSAA said it took a 30,000 foot view with classification, doing what is best for the entire state. According to Dan Smith, who runs oregonprepsports.net, 10 leagues across the state would travel more than Salem-Keizer and the travel time for the entire state was less than a minute increase on an average trip of 1:15. 36 to 1:16:32 from the last four-year block.
Curt Schelley, superintendent of Grant school district in John Day and chair of the classification and districting committee, said his teams travel six hours one-way for league games and were able to maintain a balance of academics and athletics.
“We have high poverty and kids that live 40 miles from the school and haven’t been negatively impacted,” Schelley said. “We often look through lenses of our own school districts and we have blinders on because we want to benefit our own district.”
Dr. Julie Bingham, a clinical psychologist in Salem, whose daughters play soccer and run track at South Salem, spoke of the dangers of traveling to Bend on the Santiam Pass. In a letter she received from the Oregon Department of Transportation, she noted that there were 1,419 crashes on the pass from 2011-2016 and 33 fatalities.
Bingham also pointed to a letter from the Medford school district sent to the OSAA about the dangers of traveling to Bend but a graph showed only 926 incidents between 2013-17 and one fatality. She noted the driver of a tanker truck who crashed and died on the Santiam Pass in December.
Schelley, who coached basketball at Summit, countered by saying he valued the trips over the Santiam Pass to Salem more than trips south over highway 97 or through Mt. Hood because they were closer and the roads were better maintained.
Salem-Keizer also asked why OSAA chose a six-class system when the committee previously stated that a five-class system would have less traveling.
Schelley said while a five-class system did decrease travel for some schools, it increased it for others. When athletic directors from across the state met for a conference in Sun River, directors from 1A to 5A schools overwhelming wanted a six-class system while those in 6A chose a five-class system.
“No school or student should be given more priority than another school or student,” Schelley said. “Were’ trying to do the best we can to make sure this is the best system for the state or Oregon.”