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Jackson votes to keep school-based and district sports in place

Jackson votes to keep school-based and district sports in place

After much discussion and community input, the Jackson County School Board has decided to keep its middle school sports situation as it is, with both school-based and district sports teams.

“I would like to say how proud I am of the students who had the courage to get up and voice their opinion,” said school board member Wes Jamison. “I think it is very important for them to have that opportunity and see that everyone doesn’t always agree, but things can still be worked out. I am happy for the students to be able to continue participating in both district and elementary school sports.”

Jackson County is unique among other school districts in the region in that it does not have a middle school; rather, it has several K-8 schools that feed into its high school. Approximately 15 years ago Jackson County Schools created a district team for football. Because of the relatively small student population at each K-8 school, some did not have the individual ability to field a football team. However, with a district team, boys from any school could try out for the county-wide team. 

Now, JCPS has district teams for football, cross county, boys and girls soccer, volleyball, wrestling, basketball, cheer, baseball, softball, track and golf. Tryouts for these teams occur and are followed by school-based team tryouts if the school has teams. The only sports that currently have district teams but no school-based teams are football, wrestling, track and cross country. This is because after fielding district teams there are not enough athletes to also create a school-based team. 

Since last summer, discussions have been taking place among administration about some of the difficulties created by the existence of both school-based teams and district teams for middle school sports. The school system has a difficult time hiring and retaining coaches, having enough locations for practices and games, finding enough bus drivers, administration coverage, SRO coverage and support staff to run clocks and chains during games. 

Additionally, according to Superintendent Dana Ayers, there is a divisive climate between the two programs as they attempt to run concurrently and want to have the best players on each of their teams. 

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Jackson County Schools Middle School District Athletic Director Pam Shuler broached the idea of only competing on the conference level in the sports that don’t have enough athletes for school-based teams — football, wrestling, cross country and track and field. This would have allowed the school system to have only district teams in those sports and only school-based teams in others. However, the athletic directors that make up the Blue Ridge Conference voted unanimously to deny the request, meaning Jackson County Schools could not remain in the conference if it was only participating in those four sports. 

At its Jan. 24 meeting, the Jackson County Board of Education took up the issue. Seventeen members of the public spoke during public comment, and while some argued for keeping one of the other, the majority made impassioned pleas to keep both school-based and district sports. Students, coaches and parents all took to the podium to share their opinion among shouts and cheers from the excited crowd. 

“I would hate to see the Jackson County School system turn its back on any young person who needs a responsible adult to relate to in the community or in the school,” said Jackson resident and former coach Dave Waldrop. “I would like to see the school system keep as many opportunities as possible.”

Others touted the importance of students having extracurriculars, especially in such a rural county where other opportunities may be slim. Sports, the speakers said, are an important outlet for students that are inundated with social media during free-time and screens during academic instruction time. However, few of the speakers addressed the problem at hand, that of the unsustainable strain on school resources, both staff and facilities. 

Board members appeared swayed by appeals from the gathering of students, parents and coaches, eventually voting to keep both school-based sports and district sports as they currently function, but with some added conditions in place. 

Board members did plead with the crowd gathered to do their part, whether that be coaching a team, volunteering to run games, getting certified to be an official or driving buses. The message was clear, if the community wanted to keep both school-based and district sports, it would take community support. 

The first motion made on the matter during the Jan. 24 meeting was to “continue with district middle school athletics as they currently operate.” Four board members voted in favor with only Lynn Dillard opposed. 

The second motion made was to “retain school-based athletic teams with the condition that a minimum of two schools must field a team in any given sport with appropriate personnel. And, if there is only one team in any given sport, there will not be a season and no additional try-outs for district teams will occur. Furthermore, district teams will be prioritized over school teams in regards to facilities.” Three board members voted in favor of this motion with Wes Jamison and Lynn Dillard opposed. 

After brief, inaudible discussion between board members, there was a third motion to retain school-based athletic teams with no conditions. Two members of the board were in favor, while Abigail Clayton, Elizabeth Cooper and Wes Jamison were opposed. 

“I voted to continue district sports and end [school-based] sports because I’m trying to have a long-term vision of the bigger picture and provide more opportunities for students,” said Jamison. “This would also include more academic opportunities, extracurricular opportunities and a higher quality of sports opportunities. I voted against elementary school sports in an attempt to bring about change. It is time for Jackson County Public Schools to have a middle school. We are going to have to bring and accept change to move forward.”

This idea of a middle school in Jackson County has come up regularly throughout the discussion over sports, and is one that Superintendent Ayers is an advocate for. 

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