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Board OK's co-op team with Stratford

May 27, 2009
NORTHUMBERLAND — At the close of their Thursday night meeting, the Northumberland School Board unanimously agreed to support a request by Stratford Public School to form a cooperative varsity sports program. The matter will now go in a petition to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association (NHIAA), which must sanction the cooperative program.

The board initially declined to comment on the presentation offered by Stratford Principal Dan Shallow with help from Athletic Director Keven James. At the end of the question and answer session, school board member Bill Everleth told the rest of the board there were issues he wished to discuss in a non-public session that would affect this discussion. The board had already held an hour-long non-public session prior to this topic. With nearly two hours already spent and faced with the remainder of the agenda before another non-public session, the Stratford contingent and members of various press organizations took their leave of the meeting. Later, the board was advised their discussion did not merit a private session and they shared their thoughts and voted publicly.

SAU 58 Superintendent Carl Ladd said that the conversation included some feelings of "bad blood" regarding the Stratford School Board, relating back to last year's efforts of the SAU's long-range planning committee. That was put aside, however, in an attempt to build bridges. Mr. Shallow even addressed that issue in his remarks. "I look at this as an opportunity for us to start working together," he said. Mr. Ladd told the board on Thursday night that the cooperative team would not only help Stratford athletes be able to participate in competitive sports, but also would allow for an opportunity to "break down barriers" between Groveton and Stratford. "This could have some very positive, long range benefits," he said.

Stratford's athletic program is suffering with lagging numbers. In nearly every season, middle-schoolers are petitioned up to varsity to fill out teams. In many cases the seventh and eighth graders are starters. The issue came to a head this year when the school was unable to field a baseball team. "We don't really have the numbers," Mr. Shallow said. Because the issue was not addressed sooner, he explained, the four students who would like to play baseball have lost a year of eligibility. There is a concern they will spend more time off the diamond if the NHIAA drags their feet or requires the standard two-year sports moratorium in Stratford prior to the formation of a cooperative team. A preliminary survey conducted by Mr. James found that 15 Stratford students would be interested in participating in Groveton athletics. Of the 15, eight were high school students and seven were in junior high.

Mr. Shallow said the school asked the NHIAA if they could drop just the varsity baseball program and send the students to play for neighboring schools, but were turned down. It also does not address the low enrollment issue that leads to struggling teams. Mr. James said that in his conversations with members of the NHIAA eligibility committee that there was strong resistance to allowing Stratford to continue to make up more than half of its varsity teams with middle school students. He pointed to safety and competition issues as primary concerns, saying it was unfair to expect a seventh grader to compete at the same level with high school juniors and seniors. "We're interested in building a better program," Mr. Shallow explained.

Discussions between the administration of the two schools have centered around the details of how the system would work, but final details have not been hammered out. Mr. Shallow said the Stratford School Board understands that there would likely be a fee incurred to help pay for the cost of the varsity programs in Groveton. "We understand that there's going to be a cost," he said. Once the NHIAA approves the move, details on cost, transportation and other logistics would be hammered out by the two boards. One thing they both agree on — Groveton's team name, colors and mascot would not change.

Stratford's partnership could provide Groveton with some additional talent and facilities, the men said. Pierre Couture, principal at Groveton High School, said that some of their programs could use a few extra bodies. He pointed out that the girls' soccer team functioned with just 13 players last season, leaving little rest for the athletes. Additionally, it was suggested that Stratford would now have a varsity gymnasium available for scheduling to help alleviate the high demand on the Groveton gym during basketball season. "Those types of things would help," he said.

Soccer would be a change for Stratford. The school offers cross-country running in the fall currently, but that would be eliminated with the rest of the sports with the advent of the cooperative program.

With the board approvals in hand and the petition off to the NHIAA, the administrators noted that the really big hurdle could be the parents once this program gets off the ground. Both sides anticipate potential grumblings about playing time, especially if a student who historically earned a spot in the starting line-up in Groveton was "bumped" by a Stratford athlete. Also of concern is the possibility of complaints that Stratford athletes would get less playing time as the newcomers.

"It's an emotional issue, we realize that," Mr. Shallow said. Nevertheless, the administrators said those issues would need to be dealt with so that the athletes have a chance to play at all.

"We're in the business for the kids," said Mr. Couture.

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