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Ruling upholds OSAA sports plan.

Byline: Anne Williams The Register-Guard

The Eugene School District lost its fight against the realignment of high school sports divisions in the Oregon Court of Appeals on Wednesday.

A three-judge panel rejected arguments by the Eugene, Medford and Salem-Keizer school districts that the Oregon School Activities Association followed a flawed process when it approved a new, six-tier classification system. The districts sought to undo state schools Superintendent Susan Castillo's decision upholding the OSAA plan.

Eugene district officials said they were disappointed with the ruling, but that it's too soon to say whether they will appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court.

"That discussion will happen early next week," spokesman Kelly McIver said. "We'll get together with (attorney Joel DeVore) and discuss the nuances of the ruling and the processes of appeal and talk about where we want to go from here."

OSAA Executive Director Tom Welter said his organization is implementing changes to improve the way league restructuring decisions happen in the future but that Wednesday's ruling "validates" what he maintains was a good process.

"We felt all along that we had a very exhaustive, thorough and fair process in arriving at the decision to go to the six classifications," he said.

The OSAA's plan, which took effect this year, placed Sheldon and South Eugene high schools in a new Class 6A league with South Medford, North Medford, Grants Pass and Roseburg high schools, ending traditional crosstown rivalries. The OSAA's aim was to even out the competitive balance among schools.

The revamped league system has been popular in most of the state, but Eugene, Medford and Salem-Keizer argued that the increased travel time (Salem-Keizer schools now play Redmond) takes too great a toll on student safety and academics, as well as athletics budgets.

Hoping to better address such concerns in the future, the State Board of Education last month adopted new rules that will require the OSAA to consider student safety, loss of class time and cost to school districts over other criteria the next time it reshuffles athletic leagues.

The districts' fight also spawned three bills in the Legislature aimed at curtailing the OSAA's authority; none progressed. Lawmakers agreed in committee to defer to the state board for now.

Eugene district officials said the state board's new rules were a step in the right direction, but a court victory was seen as the best chance for relief before the OSAA's next reconsideration of the league system three years from now.

A key issue in the appeal was whether the OSAA - a nongovernmental association of public and private high schools that sponsors and administers interscholastic activities - used criteria, including setting specific enrollment cutoffs for the leagues, that should have first been approved by the State Board of Education. The court maintained that the organization followed necessary procedures.

DeVore said the ruling supports the OSAA's dismissal of facts pertaining to the plaintiff districts and its "statewide feel-good approach" to league restructuring.

"So that's kind of disappointing, and it portends ill for other schools in the future," he said. "If it's a statewide feel-good approach, the question is whether anyone can ever protect themselves when the standards are violated."

Nonetheless, DeVore said the ruling reflects "hard work" on the part of the judges and merits serious study before any decisions on what happens next.

With just a few weeks left in the spring sports season, athletic directors at South and Sheldon said the first year under the revamped system has been hard on some kids, families and coaches, but they lauded collective efforts to make the best of it.

"I think everybody - parents, kids, coaches, athletic directors across our conference - has really put their best foot forward to be flexible and try to account for as many variables as possible," Sheldon Athletic Director Mark Risen said.

Dave Hancock, Risen's counterpart at South, said he wasn't surprised by Wednesday's ruling.

"Everybody in the district has fought a good fight, but it's not going to change for at least a couple of years," he said. With more creative, flexible scheduling, he added, "hopefully, next year will be a lot smoother."

Hancock said the burden has been greatest with outdoor sports that are vulnerable to the whims of Mother Nature. For instance, the boys varsity baseball team traveled to Grants Pass on Tuesday afternoon and were in the middle of the game when rain forced play to be stopped before it was complete.

"Now they're going to turn around and go again on Monday" to make it up, he said.

Michael Rooke-Ley, whose two sons play sports at South Eugene, said he was just shooting off an e-mail of frustration to Castillo Wednesday when he learned about the ruling. His 17-year-old son, Travis, plays varsity baseball and missed class to go to Grants Pass on Tuesday.

While Travis has a passion and a talent for sports, he's also very serious about academics, his father said.

"For a kid whose college aspirations are high, this is just a severe and unnecessary burden on him," he said.

Rooke-Ley, a law professor, doesn't believe the state Department of Education should delegate authority to OSAA to adopt and enforce rules that have such impact on academics.

"It's really a problem because the OSAA's first priority is not education, it's athletics," he said.

The legal tab for Eugene's redistricting fight stands at nearly $150,000 to date, officials said.
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Title Annotation:Schools; The court rejects districts' claims of a flawed process in reclassification of divisions
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 3, 2007
Words:898
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