Final OSAA proposal puts Huskies in Sky-Em

Sweet Home will be moved to a new league for the second time in five years, according to the final recommendation of the Oregon School Activities Association Classification and Districting Committee, handed down last week.

If the Executive Board accepts the committee’s recommendation on Oct. 26, the Huskies will be placed in the Sky-Em Conference, where they will join Cottage Grove, Elmira, Junction City, LaPine and Sisters.

Sweet Home School District officials are concerned by the prospect of sending busloads of students over snowy mountain passes.

“We’re disappointed that they didn’t listen to our concerns about the safety of our kids as the commute over Highway 20 will most likely force us to go one of alternate routes because so many times the highway is impassable,” said Sweet Home schools Supt. Larry Horton. “It’s often washed out and in such poor condition that buses can’t drive on it.

“We have nothing against any of the other teams in the league,” Horton added. “But we’re more concerned about the safety of kids rather than whom we’re competing against. That’s been our concern since the beginning.”

OSAA executive board members will hold a hearing on Oct. 26 before making a decision on the proposal and Sweet Home district officials say they plan to be there to try once more to get the OSAA to reconsider its placing of the Huskies in a league with two schools that will require crossing the Cascades during winter months.

The committee, which has been working on reorganizing the state’s high schools into balanced leagues since September of 2008, met Monday, Sept. 28 at the Shriner’s Headquarters Auditorium in Wilsonville to hear testimony in response to its ninth draft recommendation.

In that document, Sweet Home High School was included in the Sky-Em Conference and school district officials expressed concerns about the dangers of traveling Highway 20 to Sisters and La Pine during the winter, as well as the costs in time and money of traveling to those schools by Highways 22 or 126 to Sisters, or Highway 58 to LaPine, if Highway 20 is not passable.

In the flurry of activity following the release of the committee’s ninth draft, the Capital Conference wrote a letter suggesting that Madras be placed in the Sky-Em League, together with Sisters and LaPine, Cottage Grove and Sweet Home.

That, and a comparison of Oregon Department of Transportation crash data for highways 20 between Sisters and Sweet Home, and Highway 97 between La Pine and Klamath Falls, prompted Sweet Home Supt. Larry Horton to send a letter to the committee last week with another proposal.

“Other schools have deemed Highway 97 between LaPine and Klamath Falls unsafe to travel for league competition,”

Horton’s letter said. “Based on the Oregon Department of Transportation’s data, we strongly believe the same should be said for Highway 20 east of Sweet Home.

“According to ODOT, there have been 2.8 times more crashes per vehicle mile on Highway 20 between Sweet Home and Oregon 126 (the Clear Lake-Belknap Springs Highway) than on Highway 97 between LaPine and Klamath Falls from January 2004 through December 2008.”

The letter also reminded committee members that ODOT has downgraded its highway maintenance from a “C” level to a “D,” meaning clearing snow and dealing with other problems is a lower priority than it was at the “C” level.

The ODOT figures were key to Sweet Home’s argument because other schools have argued that Highway 97 is too dangerous in winter to require teams to travel it extensively.

According to ODOT figures, a total of 391 crashes, 17 of them involving fatalities, occurred on Highway 97 between LaPine and Klamath Falls between the months of October and April from 2004-08. During the same time span of winter months, 411 crashes, eight of those involving fatalities, occurred on Highway 20 between Sweet Home and Sisters. Ninety-one of those crashes, including two fatals, occurred between Sweet Home and the junction of Highway 126.

Horton’s letter requested that Sweet Home be allowed to remain in the Val-Co League, even though that would bump the number of Val-Co teams to seven schools, while the Sky-Em would be five schools.

The final recommendation creates a new conference, the Capital Coast League, combining the current Val-Co schools, excepting Sweet Home, with two Capital Conference members, Stayton and Cascade.

Sweet Home Athletic Director Tim Porter and Business Manager Kevin Strong attended the committee’s Sept. 28 meeting.

Strong and Porter said the committee seemed to be swayed by an aggressive campaign from Hermiston and Pendleton high schools, in which a large contingent of parents displayed pictures of their children as they argued that they should be grouped with schools along Interstate 84, rather than be forced to travel on Highway 97, which is maintained at a “C” level.

In the comittee’s final proposal the two schools were grouped in a four-school Columbia River Conference with Hood River and The Dalles, rather than being added to a proposed Central Oregon Hybrid, which is composed of Redmond, Bend,

Mountain View, Summit and Crook County.

Commission member Peter Weber, an OSAA assistant executive director, said that Hermiston and Pendleton “just kept coming at the committee with thoughts about not really wanting to go to central Oregon.”

Their reasons, he said, were “expense, lost class time, safety.

He said the central Oregon schools in the Bend and Prineville areas also have made it clear they didn’t want to go north.

Crook County, which asked to be included in 4A because of declining enrollment €“ at 858 students it is only slightly larger than Central €“ is grouped with 5A and 6A schools in that hybrid league.

The final recommendation creates a new conference, the Capital Coast League, combining the current Val-Co schools,

excepting Sweet Home, with two Capital Conference members, Stayton and Cascade.

Strong said he was surprised by the committee’s decision on Crook County.

“My understanding was that they wanted to be in 4A to play other central Oregon schools,” he said. “Instead, the committee listened to the Hermiston and Pendleton people who were complaining about the distance to central Oregon, and they split the Gorge schools into a 5A league and split the rest into a hybrid league.

“When you have three other similar-sized 4A schools so close, you’re left wondering what the committee was thinking.

Weber said Crook County is where it wants to be in the central Oregon hybrid.

He said one concern mentioned by central Oregon schools is that if they are grouped in a local league, they will have trouble scheduling non-league games.

“What they do now in different leagues is they play each other in non-league games,” Weber said. “But they play their guaranteed games in league.”

Porter said he learned from another committee member after the final proposal was handed down that the Hermiston and Pendleton request was granted because those schools have no alternative routes, whereas Sweet Home does.

He noted that traveling Highway 126 or 58, or Highway 22 to get to Sisters or LaPine is going to add mileage and increased time out of class for the Huskies.

A Google maps search by The New Era shows that the distance and estimated travel time from Sweet Home to Sisters on Highway 20 are 71.6 miles and an hour and 20 minutes. Via Lyons and Highway 22, the distance and time are 132 miles and 3:07. Sweet Home to LaPine via Highway 20 is 123 miles and 2 hours, 22 minutes travel time. Via Highway 58, it is 151 miles and 3:37.

“I think that’s a point we’re going to want to bring out,” Porter said of the costs of the extra travel.

This time the plan is to take parents along as well as school officials, he said.

He and Strong say that Madras and Crook County need to be in the Central Oregon Hybrid and that Sweet Home should be moved to the Capital Coast League.

“We will plead our case one more time,” Horton said. “Kevin and Tim went up to plead our case and they didn’t want to hear us.”