The Bristol Warren School District school committee fielded emotional pleas to keep the boys’ tennis program in place at Mt. Hope High School during its meeting Tuesday night.
Despite dozens of comments, the issue remains unresolved.
“We’re not going down without a fight,” said Matthew McGee, a 2013 graduate who played on the team throughout his high school career. “In the four years I’ve been playing, this is the biggest team I’ve ever seen.
“This program is building.”
Although participation in the program was adequate for the spring 2013 season, athletic director, Christy Belisle, said that interest in the sport has waned over the past five years. During those times she said the team had to forfeit matches due to lack of players and pay fines to the Rhode Island Interscholastic League for not filling a roster. Meanwhile, she said, a growing number of students expressed an interest in starting a boys’ volleyball team. Due to the number of athletic opportunities given the girls, in order for Mt. Hope to be in compliance with Title IX, the school would have to eliminate one boys’ team in order to offer another.
“We can’t have more opportunities for boys because of the ration,” Ms. Belise explained, with the student population nearly split between boys and girls. “It’s also about interest.”
At the end of the school year last spring, only one incoming freshman from Kickemuit Middle School expressed interest in joining the boys’ tennis team during the district’s annual athletic night for students moving on to the high school. Several, however, signed up for volleyball.
At the middle school, volleyball is offered as an extra-curricular activity. Tennis is not.
But interest and opportunity aside, high school tennis is also valued in Bristol for its legacy. In 1967, John Partington introduced tennis at what was then Bristol High School. It has been part of the athletic fabric ever since.
Judy Squires, an avid tennis player and daughter of the late Mr. Partington, urged the school committee and administrators to continue her father’s legacy.
“Once it is temporarily stopped it will never come back. I know that. You know that,” she said. “Don’t hurt the tennis players to accommodate the volleyball players.”
School committee member Diana Campbell also recognized Mr. Partington’s legacy in the town.
“I feel very strongly about legacy. I feel the legacy of tennis and Mr. Partington. If I had my druthers, I’d tell the volleyball team to wait one year,” Ms. Campbell said.
Still, the issue is one of interest and opportunity according to Title IX, and the responsibility to keep Mt. Hope High School in compliance is that of the athletic director.
“I think we should find any way possible to make this happen,” said Bill O’Dell, a school committee member. “Why can’t you add a girls’ program?”
Ms. Belise said she is working to add field hockey, a sport with great interest, as “a future endeavor.” To add girls’ field hockey the town would need a turf field since the sport would destroy a grass field.
Others who spoke suggested allowing the two sports to continue, disregarding Title IX.
“Not unless you want the civil rights office in our school,” she said.
Ms. Belisle assured the members of the school and those in attendance that the decision was not “short sighted.”
“This was based on numbers from the last five years,” she said.
Schools Superintendent Melinda Thies, said that she is confident in Ms. Belise’s decisions and considers her to be an “expert” in Title IX compliance. And that, said school committee chairman Paul Silva, is where the issue lies.
“While I applaud everyone’s discussion, the real issue and the real discussion needs to set around the facts, rules and regulations,” he said. “Some rules that come down from federal and state government are antiquated.
But we’re stuck with them and have to comply with them.”
School committee member, Karen Lynch, called for a decision to be made, rather than “kick the can down the road another year.” Both she and committee colleague, Marjorie McBride, who experienced the benefits and intent of the 1972 law, realize that it is a difficult decision.
“Someone’s going to be unhappy,” Ms. Lynch said.
While the current plan is for spring tennis to be offered as an intramural or club sport, open to boys and girls, and varsity volleyball introduced as a spring sport for boys, Ms. Thies said that she and Ms. Belisle will meet to review any viable options.