On horizon for Bend schools: Salem-area league?

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By Grant Lucas
The Bulletin

The job is never a simple one. The Oregon School Activities Association classification and districting committee cannot expect to please everyone — especially when it comes to Central Oregon schools.

Public outcry has been loud over the past few years as Bend High and Summit, easily the two largest schools in Class 5A and well over the enrollment cap for the classification, continued to compete and succeed in 5A — in some cases to the point of outright dominance. The demand has long been for the two high schools to be moved to 6A, including two years ago when the OSAA committee was finalizing its proposal for the current four-year classification time block (2014-2018).

No 6A league, however, was interested in having Bend and Summit as members. Certainly, it is believed by many within the OSAA, the two 5A behemoths will not once again be granted a geographic exception when the committee nears its final recommendation this time around. So in which 6A league do the two Bend high schools fit? Which decision is supported by the majority of the OSAA member schools?

For the current committee, those kinds of questions add to the challenge of designing a high school sports classification landscape that is as acceptable as possible. And that is why this committee, following its first meeting last week, developed early drafts — which have Bend, Summit and Mountain View in the 6A’s Salem-area Greater Valley League — to release to the public.

“The thought process was just to get something out there to start conversations,” says Larry Ramirez, the 6A representative on the committee and the director of high school education for the Salem-Keizer school district. “Obviously the Bend schools, a couple of them in particular, are larger than some other schools in the area. … It was just to throw an idea out: ‘Let’s put the Bend schools in a 6A league.’ It’s just a rationale to get a conversation started and get an idea of what the reception from all the members would be.”

In other words, a trial balloon.

In the past, such first drafts have typically been released after the first few committee meetings. This time around, as the committee aims to create a classification model that is sustainable for longer than just the next four-year time block, the norm was broken.

“I think the committee … really wanted to get something out there that people could look at, chew on and provide feedback on,” says OSAA executive director Peter Weber.

Deliberations several years ago included discussions and public testimony suggesting the OSAA consider trimming its six-classification model to five classes. The ideas, however, never gained traction. Last week, in its ongoing effort to spur public feedback, the committee released two drafts: one for a six-class model, one for five classes. In both, the three Bend high schools are grouped with Salem-area McKay, McNary, North Salem, South Salem, Sprague and West Salem high schools. And in the five-class model, West Albany is added to the Greater Valley League. A similar plan was in place when the OSAA expanded from four to six classifications beginning in 2006, when Redmond High, at the time the lone 6A school east of the Cascades, played in a league against Salem-area schools, which, along with schools from Eugene and Medford, sued the OSAA over the classification, citing travel costs and safety concerns.

These drafts, Weber and Ramirez emphasize, were designed to “jump-start the process,” as Weber put it. By no means are these leagues set in stone. On the first page of the six-page document, a bold and underlined statement appears several times: “Please note that this is a draft proposal and is not a final recommendation.” Instead, the drafts encourage response — positive or negative.

The OSAA drafts would affect other Central Oregon schools as well.

In the six-classification draft, Redmond and Ridgeview remain in the 5A Intermountain Conference, along with Crook County (which would jump from 4A), Hood River Valley, Pendleton and The Dalles. Sisters would break from the 4A Sky-Em League to join Madras in the 4A Tri-Valley Conference, and 3A La Pine would be part of the PacWest Conference with several Salem-area schools. Culver remains at 2A but is slotted in with the Wapiti League, composed mostly of Eastern Oregon schools, while Central Christian, Gilchrist and Trinity Lutheran stay with the 1A Mountain Valley League.

As a means of entertaining a five-class system, a second draft has Madras returning to the IMC, joining Crook County, Redmond, Ridgeview, Hood River Valley, Pendleton and The Dalles. Sisters drops to 3A and reunites with La Pine as they — along several Eugene-area schools — form the Mid-Valley Conference. Culver would remain in the 2A Columbia Basin Conference, and the 1A Mountain Valley League stays intact.

Of course, the spotlight from the Central Oregon perspective homes in on the Greater Valley League, which, according to both drafts, would welcome Bend High, Mountain View and Summit into the state’s largest classification. While no 6A leagues were willing to accept either Bend or Summit as members a few years ago, Ramirez says there could be more of an understanding this time around.

“The Salem schools would be a potential closest neighbor to where (the Bend schools) are at,” he says. (Salem is about 135 miles from Bend, across the Cascades via U.S. Highway 20 and state Highway 22.) “I think they’ll understand the practicality of it. I would think they would have concerns, maybe, about lost class time, travel in the winter over the (Santiam Pass), those kind of class-time (and travel) safety issues, I think, would be usually what people mostly talk about. But it’s hard to guess what people might be thinking.”

“It’s hard to tell this early what that push back is going to be,” says longtime Mountain View athletic director Dave Hood, the Oregon Athletic Directors Association representative on the OSAA committee. “I certainly didn’t get any indication from our last committee meeting. I think the committee wants to get something out to the public for them to chew on so that we can get some reaction and see where that goes. Personally, as a local athletic director, I think the Salem area would be a good fit for us, not just travelwise but competitionwise.”

The classification and districting committee still has 10 meetings scheduled over the next 10 months to develop and refine a final recommendation that would go to the OSAA executive board for a vote before the association’s delegate assembly gives the final stamp of approval next fall and put the plan into place beginning fall 2018. It is a long process, to be sure, and it involves a number of parties. But it all begins with the committee, which, Hood says, creates considerable pressure for the committee to develop a high school landscape that is widely accepted.

“The committee’s committed to get it right, but I think everyone knows it’s impossible to make everybody happy,” Hood says. “You just try to do your best for all of the regions. … We’re all a part of one association. We kind of have to take care of each other.”

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