Bombers Take Old Problem to New Audience (AP Analysis)

by Kelly P. Kissel, The Associated Press  on Monday, Jul. 29, 2013 7:38 am  

LITTLE ROCK - Mountain Home school officials traveled to Little Rock last week with an old problem but a new audience.

Their mission: Find a way to adopt fair sports schedules and still keep their kids in class.

Their tactic: Make the debate about education and not competition.

The Arkansas Activities Association, which governs athletics, cheerleading and band competition for most of the state's high schools, is a court of first resort when schools seek changes in how competitions are run.

But having failed to convince fellow schools in the AAA that long drives take a lot out of student-athletes, and take students out of a lot of classes, Mountain Home administrators found a new set of ears at the Arkansas Legislature.

"We have exhausted all our other options," Janet Wood, Mountain Home's athletic director, said in an interview Friday.

Mountain Home is the largest city in northern Arkansas and, with 925 students, has the 25th largest high school in the state. In a typical season, conference opponents travel to Mountain Home just once a year. For the Bombers, under current classification rules, every conference game is two hours or more away.

It's not a new problem. Even 20 years ago, Mountain Home was traveling 150 miles to Little Rock for conference games. Wood said that even trips in the 1980s to places like Bentonville and Huntsville took more out of the budget than anything but salaries - "just to get the kids to where they play."

Superintendent Lonnie Myers told Mountain Home radio station KTLO last week that multi-sport players miss 18 days of school per year on average - or one-tenth of an academic year - and that tweaks to conference lineups could pair the Bombers against schools that are closer and of similar size.

Instead of a lineup that now takes them to Cabot (2,258 students), North Little Rock (2,092) and Little Rock Central (2,032), "we could travel to Greene County Tech (766), Paragould (645). We could participate against Beebe (721), some of those schools that we drive past to get to Little Rock," Myers told the station.

Mountain Home is backing a proposal in the AAA that would have the largest 15 schools in the state plus Little Rock Catholic-Mount St. Mary, which play in the top division, form a 16-team conference. Next would be a 48-team bracket combining the current 6A and 5A classes.

"It won't pass because the 5A schools don't want to play the 6A schools," Wood said.

Such a change could have Class 5A powers like Camden Fairview and Wynne facing Class 6A powers like El Dorado or Pine Bluff for conference titles - though Wood didn't say who was opposing her.

"We need to make it an education issue. Others approach it from a competition angle," Wood said.

At the AAA, executive director Lance Taylor said the group shares Mountain Home's concerns, too, but that the collective membership makes the rules.

"It's hard to solve a geographic problem," Taylor said. "It's something we need to keep looking at, and try to make things better for all schools."

He suggested that, if students are missing too many classes, Mountain Home and other isolated big schools like West Memphis or Texarkana can play games on Saturday, or schedule double-headers, or meet halfway at a neutral site. Wood said she had seen neutral-site games devolve into logistical nightmares.

"Someone has to provide gate workers, someone for the press box, someone for the lights, maintenance ... concessions," she said. "There's no crowd."

Sen. Johnny Key, from Mountain Home, introduced a bill at this year's legislative session that would have limited conference-game travel to an average of 125 miles one-way. The bill was referred to an interim committee, which held a hearing on the matter last week.

While bills directly involving high school athletics are relatively rare, and Taylor believes the AAA system is the appopriate forum for Mountain Home's travel-limit idea, Wood said taking the fight to the Capitol may work because the House and Senate voted this year to let home-schooled pupils take part in sports and other activities at their local school districts.

"Now that they've intervened in home-schoolers in athletics and bands, it'll be easier to intervene the next time," she said.

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