Pride and prescience

One week ago Friday we loaded up the family truckster, made a pass through Shenandoah to pick up grandpa – a 1958 Sidney grad – and headed off to Cedar Rapids to see the Cowgirls play in the state volleyball championship. It was a memorable drive, an unforgettable night in a fantastic venue, a gladiatorial effort by the ‘Girls, an epic battle against adrenaline deprivation to get back home and, of course, I wanted to write about it all.

But after reading Peter Johnson’s personal, pride-drenched and perfectly worded mic drop of an essay posted on Saturday, I thought better of it. I’ll just say, “Thanks, girls” and leave it at that. And thanks, Peter, for being so compelled by the affection and admiration for your hometown and school. You’re a talented writer, but more importantly in my mind, you’re an honest and emotional one.

Which segues nicely into a little plug for Matt’s brilliant concept of having “Your Blog,” in the first place. I didn’t even know about the idea until I saw Peter’s post pop up on Saturday, but it immediately struck me as something truly inspired and absent from any sports news and entertainment source that I know of. We all talk about this stuff and we all have an opinion, anecdote from our own days or eager point to make about the area high school athletic scene, but the main avenues for those thoughts are typically limited to a few words at a time.

That’s fine for most people and most subjects and, in fact, is wonderful for eliciting discussion that gets right to the meat of the matter. Occasionally, though, a topic requires more insight, reflection, expansion and caringly crafted explanation. Plus, IMHO, a bit of flourish. Kudos, again, to Peter for kicking it off, but I’m definitely hoping to see more submissions from the fan base at-large very soon.

Which is an ample, if not artful, segue segue into my next hot topic, the season to come. Just a couple days away now, the winter campaign Valley Forges ahead as East Mills prepares to tip in their annual girls’ basket-blastoff with Shenandoah Tuesday. I’ve covered this game at each venue from an alternate perspective, but am anxious to experience it with a new set of eyes.

I still have great affection and respect for a number of the Fillie players I’ve watched over the last couple of years and won’t exactly be rooting against them, but the Wolverine athletic program is one of those I’m particularly interested in getting to know far better. East Mills and Stanton, in particular, are names I’ve associated with tremendous challenge and rivalry – year after year, season after season – for the four Corner Conference schools I’ve been focused on to this point. Losses to them have been letdowns, although hard-fought and justifiable ones, and wins have come with great celebration at overcoming a potent, historically deep and admired foe.

Now I’m learning to look at them in a different light, not as tough dates on the schedule and barriers to “my” teams’ aspirations, but as half the equation of a thrilling night of competition and, ultimately, great representatives of southwest Iowa and the Corner Conference. Again, cribbing from Peter’s excellent post, the farther the postseason progresses, the more an individual school or athletic program acts as statewide envoy and exemplar of the entire conference. The circle of pride widens and, critically on a longer timeline of what sports really builds in our kids, sportsmanship and respect emerge as they rally behind their once-and-future rivals in the larger arenas.

It can be as much the players you compete against as the ones on your side of the field, floor or game-time flyer that define your experience.

Which leads to my final awkward lead-in, shifting to a short commentary on the sad affairs befalling Farragut this week. Once more, plenty has been said in the last few days on the dissolution of the town’s school district, especially eloquently by Matt in his blog and Nishnabotna grad Joseph Heitshusen, my replacement at the paper, in his column. Matt, with his years of experience, and Joseph, with the bulk of his youth spent in the Farragut school system including the last few as a star Shen-Nish wrestler and Blue Devil baseball standout I had the privilege to cover, surely brought a deeper, more detailed perspective than I could ever muster, but still I have my story.

Before I ever imagined becoming some semblance of a sports reporter guy, the former Farragut High School was one of my first employers as a substitute teacher for a year. Many of the kids I would later watch from the sidelines were freshmen and sophomores then and served as a de facto welcoming party for my transition to not only living in rural southwest Iowa where my family has its roots, but also working here and assuming a role in the community. Sure, being a sub has its challenges, but those kids couldn’t have been nicer, more engaging or a better group of ambassadors for the area and its small town schools collectively.

Essex was another district that called me up on regular occasion for an odd day or two of work and I can say the same about the students there. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s been a joy and a privilege to watch them grow from gangly, goofy eighth-graders to the impressive young adults they are as seniors today, never losing the forthright, funny and fearless qualities this larger community of southwest Iowa helps impart. Each town and each school certainly has its own history, traditions and sense of pride, but I feel qualified to say there is a common thread that binds and defines the kids in this corner of the world and I am humbled and ecstatic that my own children are now intertwined with it, as well.

During my first year at the paper, I covered some sports, but was also on the school beat for a couple area towns and gained an intensive, if not quite exhaustive, education on the extreme challenges facing small districts. At the core, of course, is trying to retain and attract students while town populations steadily decline, all the while offering a mandated minimum of courses and keeping test scores up. But the greatest obstacle superintendents, in particular, attempt to navigate is the financial handcuffing imposed by the state in a professed effort to ensure “equity” for all Iowa students.

The idea, as I understand it, is to limit smaller districts’ spending authority so they can’t gain some advantage or undue privilege by plunking down more cash per pupil than the big schools are able to, as if they are sitting on a vast bank account and just can’t wait to build big, gaudy stadiums and buy everyone leather-backed chairs and MacBook Pros. My experience, which was admittedly brief, involved an area superintendent explaining that the district could only remedy its dearth of air conditioned classrooms by purchasing portable units because the state wouldn’t allow it to spend money it had on a new central system. That, he said, would be considered a facility improvement and have to come from a levy fund controlled by spending authority, so he had to get creative.

Air conditioning. You know, so students can actually go to school on those oppressive late summer days and not be forced to stay home, not learning. We’ve all been in the gyms, exterior doors swung wide and industrial-grade fans thrumming away, sweating in the stands as our “privileged” kids fend off heat exhaustion in a climate-uncontrolled indoor environment. Nine times out of ten, I’m guessing, this is the more common scenario than one the state envisions in which small towns can somehow flood their schools with cash, luxuries and scale-tipping opportunities.

Other extreme challenges involved meeting accreditation requirements, which I learned is often the first slippery spot on the slope to ceding control of a district’s fate to the state. Obviously, we want our kids to have all the reasonable academic options available, but small districts are seriously hindered in their ability to employ adequate staff numbers – on budget – to offer a full range of courses and, kicker alert, actually get students to enroll. You can have the teacher and the class, but if you don’t get the butts in the seats, it doesn’t count.

So they share resources, one district opening certain less fundamental but no less important courses – think languages, ag science, industrial arts – to students from another district and quid pro quo. That way, only half a salary goes on each school’s budget and they meet the standard. Unfortunately, the students in question have to literally hit the road, sometimes a half-an-hour or more each way, to get to class and, as a result, are habitually late to the next one back at their own school. And then, in many cases, they get to do it again for sports practice after the school day proper is over.

It’s my understanding that there has been a powerful crowd in the upper echelons of state education for quite a while focused on reducing the number of school districts in Iowa to 99, or essentially one for each county. I’m sure there are valid reasons, but the cynic (a disproportionate portion of me most days) says it’s simply about bureaucracy and centralizing control, an ages-old battle between population centers and the perceived periphery. Somebody wants one size to truly fit all because it makes the execution of a standard equation far easier.

The method for achieving this vision, in my opinion, appears to be the particularly cruel practice of slow, prolonged strangulation. I’m not trying to excuse or explain away any poor practices by administrators and/or school boards, but the deck seems decidedly stacked against them regardless of what they do or do not do. And that is the ultimate point here, in fact, that the fate that befell Farragut is lurking around the corner for almost every small school district. One ill-placed step on the slippery slope and all the state has to do is wait.

Which is why, more than ever, the traditional and time-honored rivalries we enjoy so much, town against town in an unending struggle for county and conference supremacy, must, as in the case of Sidney’s volleyball run, be limited to the duration of athletic events and quickly drift away as soon as they are over. Like with the Cowgirls or any other Corner Conference team that has ascended past the Regional level, our partisan, provincial interests naturally should fade to reflect a greater interest.

Because, like it or not, I believe what happened in Farragut is not just an unfortunate possibility but a likely eventuality for those districts that hold too fast to traditional enmities and town boundaries. Times have most definitely changed and clinging to an outdated sense of civic identity can have disastrous consequences. Two of the strongest districts, Sidney and Fremont-Mills, started discussing a future that involves some form of sharing or consolidation a year or more ago. To reject the notion – in the name of an antiquated idea of community pride – is to live in denial. The more we work together and support one another, the greater the chance that our great small town schools and teams can stave off the state’s attempt to starve them into submission.