Mergers Becoming More Common

From a historical perspective, few things in the daily operations of a school district will upset its community more than the prospect of merging athletic programs with a neighboring district.

If districts had a choice in the matter, it would be to operate their own sustainable programs regardless of the sport. The reality, however, is that a trending decline in enrollment and student participation in sports is forcing districts to make a decision that most districts don’t want to make.

The consensus among athletic directors of area schools is that merging is always looked to as a last resort when it comes to making sure that students have an opportunity to participate. According to Kevin Salisbury, athletic director at Southwestern Central School, the overall goal is to remain independent.

“Here at Southwestern, our coaches and community have sent me a very clear message that we are Southwestern and only Southwestern,” Salisbury said.

“My goal is to have sports for our kids to participate in, but if we can’t, we’ll look at a merger in order to give those kids an opportunity to play and still be a part of the team.”

Salisbury said Southwestern is currently in the midst of its first experience with a merged sports team. Southwestern’s boys swimming team recently merged with the already combined Frewsburg-Pine Valley team for this season. While Salisbury said it is too early to derive specific instances of pros and cons from the arrangement, he did say that the merger did provide one obvious benefit.

“What I can say is, had we not merged with Frewsburg, Southwestern would not have had boys swimming this year,” Salisbury said. “We only had five boys sign up, and we would have had to drop the program.”

A recent sports merger that landed schools in hot water with their communities was the rapid joining of Falconer and Frewsburg school districts’ boys basketball programs.

The merger came about in a brief period of time, when it was discovered early in September that Frewsburg only had 10 students signed up to participate in its boys basketball program. According to Danielle O’Connor, Frewsburg superintendent, the district had to quickly examine its options for operating a sustainable program. She said discussions then ensued with Stephen Penhollow, Falconer superintendent, in which it was determined that Falconer was also dealing with below average participation numbers and was also looking for support in the area of coaching.

At that point, the idea of a merger was proposed by Frewsburg. Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for combined sports in Section 6 was Sept. 9, forcing the district to act quickly or risk potentially losing out on boys basketball for the year.

Salisbury pointed to this scenario in his explanation of the difficulty behind making a decision that affects so many people.

“The other thing making it difficult on schools is the deadline dates that have been put in front of us,” Salisbury said. “You’re seeing that with Falconer and Frewsburg, but in my opinion, they made the right decision based on the numbers they had signed up.”

In smaller districts, such as Clymer Central School, merging programs is simply a means of ensuring that students can be involved in sports programs. According to Scott Neckers, Clymer athletic director, a collaboration between Clymer, Panama and Pine Valley has been established to provide certain programs that would not have existed in the districts without reaching a shared sports agreement.

“It’s been great because we’re giving kids an opportunity to do sports they wouldn’t normally get to do,” Neckers said. “Clymer has never offered cross country before, but last year we had a girl who ran in states. I believe Panama joined this year, and they had one or two students who ran in states. Last year, they wouldn’t have had that opportunity.”

Neckers said Clymer has avoided negative feedback from its community by combining programs with smaller participation rates.

“As of right now, we’ve been lucky because everybody gets to compete in cross country and track. When you’re talking about football and basketball, like the situation with Falconer and Frewsburg, that’s where it gets tricky,” Neckers said.

According to Josh Liddell, secondary school principal and athletic programs coordinator at Chautauqua Lake Central School, nearly all athletic directors in Chautauqua and Cattaraugus counties are working toward establishing sports partnerships.

Liddell said combining athletics has been commonplace at Chautauqua Lake – which has successfully combined boys and girls swimming, golf, wrestling and football.

“In the past five years, I have seen a significant increase in the number of combined sports teams throughout Chautauqua County,” Liddell said. “In many cases, combining schools for athletic participation can be a great option for our area schools, their community and, most importantly, our students. Combining sport programs is a proactive way to continue to give student-athletes in our area an opportunity to play on teams that may not have been offered if a combination wasn’t pushed forth.

“Another major benefit for combined programs, like football and wrestling, is that student safety is enhanced,” he added. “For example, when you have sufficient roster numbers in practice sessions, you are able to have student-athletes compete against peers of the same age, size and ability.”