Leagues hold talks on potential reorganization

JARED BOMBA | The Daily Star Stamford's Georgia Lynch (left) and Franklin's Maddy Ackley (right) chase a loose ball during a Section IV Class D girls basketball semifinal on February 26 at SUNY Oneonta. Stamford competes in the Delaware League and Franklin plays in the Tri-Valley League.

Even the most gifted athletes, to remain at the top of their game, are forced to adjust and look to the future. It appears that remains true for their governing organizations.

Local administrators confirmed this week that talks are being held and a committee has been formed to consider possible changes to the organization of the area’s three primary interscholastic athletic leagues. Modifications to the independence of the Tri-Valley League, Delaware League and Midstate Athletic Conference are possible, but potential changes are still in the early planning phase and are not expected to take effect within the next year, if at all.

“We are in the early ideating phase, and I just want to generate a discussion to come up with viable solutions for how we can continue to provide our kids and communities with opportunities,” Unadilla Valley superintendent and committee chairman Bob Mackey said. “Right now it’s just a pipe dream that may be put on a shelf in another year.”

According to BOCES data, between 2012 and 2017, K-12 enrollment at the 31 schools in The Daily Star’s sports coverage area fell by 4.9%. The period from 2007 to 2017 saw a 17% decrease, from 18,748 students to 15,568. Teams formed by combining districts have become more common, with this spring seeing Unadilla Valley, a Class C school, do so for the first time by joining Class D Gilbertsville-Mount Upton to field a baseball team.

“If we can see what is happening and we work hard enough and early enough, we can prevent kids not wanting to participate because they are playing the same teams over and over again,” Mackey said. “The whole idea was not to just merge three leagues, it was to say ‘here’s the problem, what do we do about it?’”

Talks began a little more than a year ago as Mackey grew concerned about the prevalence of schools being forced to combine programs to field teams. Meetings with area athletic coordinators over the summer of 2018 reinforced the concern, and a committee was formed to research potential alternatives to league structure. The project failed to gain traction because of a lack of administrative backing, with Mackey saying that at one meeting last summer, he was the only superintendent present.

The project regained momentum this year. Committee member Jeff Baier, who has coached and served as the athletic director at Downsville for more than two decades, said at his March induction into the Basketball Coaches Association of New York Hall of Fame, a few local superintendents discussed the number of merged programs. Another local superintendent emailed Mackey in April, beginning another round of meetings by the committee.

The most recent meeting gathered more than 50 people, including superintendents from nearly all of the schools in the three leagues, on June 7 at Brooks BBQ.

“Originally, we didn’t feel there was enough buy-in from superintendents to keep working on it,” Mackey said. “Now, superintendent consensus is the subcommittee should meet again with details around one or two options then come back. None of us are 100% sure that any change will happen, but with that backing the legwork to explore options will really happen.”

The committee includes athletic coordinators and superintendents from the three leagues. Mackey is joined by Delhi sports coordinator Jeff Ferrara, UV athletic coordinator Matt Osborne and Unatego athletic director Matt Hafele. Baier, Stamford athletic director Greg O’Connell, Downsville superintendent John Evans and Windham coach and Delaware League coordinator Jim Adair represent the Delaware League. Schenevus athletic coordinator Scott Wolstenholme, Gilbertsville-Mount Upton athletic director Greg Bonczkowski and Laurens athletic director Bill Dorritie represent the Tri-Valley League.

While potential plans were not specified, multiple involved parties emphasized that presenting potential plans to superintendents is at least a year away, if not more, citing the difficulties in merging league bylaws, developing schedules and organizing tournament play.

For the area’s larger schools, primarily those competing in the MAC, change is less urgent. But while Unadilla Valley merged a program for the first time, Baier said in the 2018-19 academic year, Downsville combined all of its programs except boys and girls basketball. However, this has not greatly affected league play as its most common collaborators, Roscoe and Livingston Manor, are not Delaware League members.

“We know what it’s like and we wonder what it would be like to have every team in our league doing it,” Baier said. “For us the teams aren’t in the league, but if someone else does it, that’s two more teams off the schedule. You don’t want a baseball league with five teams.”

Multiple sources noted the tradition and school spirit involved in athletics make change a daunting prospect. This is particularly true for the smaller districts that serve one community. While Unadilla Valley was formed in 1996 with the merging of the New Berlin and South New Berlin districts, many of the area’s smaller schools have not reorganized since the centralization movement of the early to mid 20th century.

“The school boards have to decide if they are going to lose their identities, or if the kids just aren’t going to do anything,” Baier said. “We are in the business of giving kids opportunities, and if we don’t do anything, down the road you’re going to lose your identity anyway.”

Some local schools have been excluded from the talks. Oneonta, which plays in the Southern Tier Athletic Conference, and Cooperstown of Section III’s Center State Conference, have not been involved to date. Section IV is not directly involved either, as the matter is in the hands of the leagues, but Section IV president Terry Dougherty is also the superintendent of Hancock Central School District, which plays in the MAC. One of the smallest schools in the league, Hancock merges with neighboring district Deposit in most sports.

“As president of Section IV, my position on league realignment dialogues is neutral as the section does not weigh in on such matters,” Dougherty said in a statement. “That said ... I am very concerned in general about declining enrollments and potentially diminished opportunities for kids.

"I believe it is wise and prudent for the member school districts of the MAC, Tri-Valley and Delaware Leagues to have ongoing conversations so as to proactively troubleshoot challenging issues that could imperil athletic participation and opportunities for kids in the present and future,” he said.

Mackey said league reorganization conversations have not included considerations of merging school districts. The smaller undertaking of league reorganization, beginning with a year of preliminary planning, already has an unspecified, multi-year timeline as plans must progress through superintendents and school boards before any changes begin to take effect.

“I don’t think there is anyone that totally embraces change, but we want to be proactive,” Mackey said. “There isn’t anyone in the 30-some school districts that would say, today, the best thing is some kind of league merger. We know we are okay where we are, but we are not okay staying where we are.”