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Castillo sustains OSAA's changes.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - Oregon's top education official ruled Friday in favor of new athletic leagues that will require hundreds of additional miles in student travel by Eugene, Salem-Keizer and Medford high school students.

Oregon schools Superintendent Susan Castillo issued a final order upholding the Oregon School Activities Association's reclassification of high schools into six groupings based on student enrollment. She said the new system, along with new leagues that will put South Eugene and Sheldon high schools in the same league with schools in Roseburg, Grants Pass and Medford, passed legal muster.

"I find that I have no basis to rule against the OSAA classification and redistricting on the facts of the case. My hands are tied," Castillo wrote in a statement that accompanied her final order.

Castillo, herself a Eugene resident, declined to speak with reporters about the decision. Her spokesman, Gene Evans, cited as reasons potential appeal of the case and that she might deal with it again.

The new classification system will be in place for the school years from 2006-10. By putting schools into six different classifications based on student enrollment, the OSAA is seeking to bring more competitive balance to high school athletics than exists under the current four-classification system.

The OSAA plans to re-evaluate its plan and consider adjustments based on enrollment changes for 2011.

Eugene School District attorney Joel DeVore said officials were considering a legal challenge in the Oregon Court of Appeals. He said no decision would be made until after discussing the options Monday with Eugene school Superintendent George Russell. Russell earlier this week indicated a court appeal was likely.

DeVore said he was convinced the plan was legally flawed because if it was deemed adequate for most high schools, it left no opportunity for those few that are harmed to seek a remedy. He said that set an unacceptable precedent that could come back to haunt those schools that found the current realignment acceptable.

"It's not just Eugene hurt today, or Salem or Medford," DeVore said. "It's every school in the state that has no right to appeal and no ability to see that standards are enforced."

The OSAA plan expands from four to six the number of classifications for schools. Eugene was joined by the Medford and Salem-Keizer school districts fighting the change. All objected for similar reasons: that students would lose too much class time traveling to compete in sports. Medford also objected to the distance between its schools and Eugene. Salem-Keizer did not want its five high schools to travel regularly over the Cascades to play Redmond High School, which would be placed in the same league.

Tom Welter, the executive director of the OSAA, said he was not surprised by Castillo's decision, which closely followed the reasoning of the hearings officer she appointed to consider the appeal by the three school districts.

"We felt all along we had a thorough, fair and democratic process and felt all along we had not violated any laws, rules or regulations," he said. "And we are pleased that the superintendent today has confirmed that."

He said the decision may not satisfy every one of Oregon's 287 high schools in the OSAA, but it would bring finality to next fall's league scheduling requirements after months of uncertainty.

"It's been a long, lengthy ordeal for our member schools, which have patiently waited to get some finality so they can start making preparations for next year," Welter said.

For now, that's the approach South Eugene athletic director Dave Hancock is taking.

"We're going to play in a different league next year, and we're preparing to play in that league," he said.

That league will include two schools in Medford, 166 miles away, and one in Grants Pass, a 138-mile drive from Eugene. District officials have estimated the additional transportation costs at more than $66,000 a year. As much as $50,000 could be lost in lower gate receipts. They've also tried to find ways to minimize the potential loss of instruction time in the classroom as a result of increased travel time for after-school athletic contests.

Hancock said South Eugene would schedule more games on weekends and to align grading periods and otherwise work with the calendar to minimize lost classroom time for student athletes.

He said that would start this fall with boys and girls soccer. Matches will be played on Tuesdays and Saturdays. As time goes on, he said additional sports would involve similar scheduling to ensure that long travel times occur outside of class hours.

Hancock also pointed out that the OSAA would begin in three years to consider the next realignment of leagues. By that time, school enrollments may have changed so that South Eugene and Sheldon could again play in a league that involves the other Eugene, Springfield and other closer-to-home schools, as the Midwestern League has.

"Hopefully it isn't the end of the world, and hopefully it won't last for more than three or four years," he said. "And in the meantime, we just have to do the best that we can."

Castillo said in her statement that she personally shared those sentiments and would introduce legislation in 2007 that puts a greater weight on student safety and academic achievement when OSAA schools are reclassified and redistricted. She said the three school districts made a strong case that student safety and the loss of instructional time would be compromised under the current plan.

"To me, these issues outweigh benefits gained from competitive balance," Castillo wrote. "However, the law does not see it that way."

IS THE SPORTS LEAGUE CHANGE A GOOD IDEA? Post your opinion about the OSAA's plan to send South Eugene and Sheldon high schools into a Class 6A league with Southern Oregon schools while keeping the other Eugene and Springfield schools together: www.registerguard.com/talk
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Title Annotation:Schools; The state schools superintendent upholds the realignment of prep athletic leagues
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 10, 2006
Words:976
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