Latest OSAA plan has Sweet Home in conference with Sisters, LaPine

Sweet Home school officials are concerned about the latest Oregon School Activities Association redistricting proposal, which would put the Huskies in the Sky-Em League next fall, their third conference in five years.

But the move to yet another league is less of a concern than the fact that this proposal also puts Sisters and La Pine in the Sky-Em League, they say. What worries them is the prospect of busing students across the Cascades.

Sweet Home argued to the Classification and Redistricting Committee last April that winter travel on Highway 20 east to Sisters and beyond has become more treacherous now that the mountain road has been downgraded by the Oregon Department of Transportation from C to D, meaning that the state has reduced its priority for clearing during winter weather.

Sweet Home suggested that the schools east of the Cascades be grouped with others in that area and that Sweet Home be put in a league where travel east on Highway 20 will not be as much of a necessity

In response to the committee’s latest move, school officials said Friday they are considering one more effort to make their case.

The final public meeting of the Classification and Districting Committee will be at 9 a.m. Monday, Sept. 28, at the Shriner’s Building Auditorium across the street from the OSAA Office in Portland.

“Right now we’re trying to decide if we want to go back and speak to the OSAA,” said high school Athletic Director Tim Porter, who stepped into the position last month. “I don’t know what we’d tell them that we haven’t told them before.”

The Classification and Redistricting Committee has been meeting since last fall and is on its ninth draft in attempting to redraw the state’s high school leagues to reduce complaints about excessive travel, balance the numbers of schools in leagues and solve other issues that have arisen after the last realignment went into effect in the fall of 2005.

The committee is required to make decisions based on several criteria: safety, minimizing loss of instructional time, keeping costs as low as possible and making sure the enrollments of schools within a given league are within limits set by the OSAA.

Last spring, when Sweet Home was first placed in the Sky-Em League with Cottage Grove, Elmira, Junction City, La Pine and Sisters, district officials proposed their own plan, which would have placed the Huskies back in the Capital League with Cascade (Turner), Central (Independence), Estacada, North Marion, Philomath and Stayton. Sweet Home proposed that Sisters and LaPine be moved to the Skyline League with Henley, Klamath Union and Mazama.

Then-Athletic Director Dave Goetz argued at a committee meeting in SunRiver on April 20 that although travel distances for Sisters would be slightly increased, the road conditions in Eastern Oregon are generally far superior to Tombstone Pass during the winter.

The issue then and now, officials say, is that Highway 20, the road from Sweet Home to Sisters and LaPine, has been downgraded by the Oregon Department of Transportation from C to D, meaning that an already difficult winter drive could be rendered impassable if ODOT decides it doesn’t have resources to clear the highway during or after a snowstorm.

Tombstone Pass, in particular, is seen as a danger, said Sweet Home School District Business Manager Kevin Strong.

The OSAA Classification and Redistricting Committee, which is comprised of member school representatives, OSAA staffers and education officials, initially appeared moved by Sweet Home’s arguments and, in its next deliberations, on May 11 in Wilsonville, decided to put the Huskies back in the five-team Val-Co league, which would remain as it is now. They also decided to put Sisters and LaPine in the Sky-Em League, which would also be five teams.

Peter Weber, an OSAA assistant executive director who sits on the 17-member committee, said that new enrollment numbers are the primary reason why Sweet Home and other schools have been moved. He said the committee was surprised by lower-than-expected enrollments at Molalla and Madras, which had been projected as moving to 5A, and had to reassess its plans.

Also, Weber said, Madras does not want to be grouped with 5A and 6A schools in a proposed Intermountain Hybrid and has specifically asked to be placed in the Tri-Valley League with schools north of Salem.

Absent other viable options, the committee decided to honor that request, which resulted in a domino effect as it tried to maintain a six-school membership in as many 4A leagues as possible, Weber said. Cascade and Stayton were moved into the Val-Co League, which forced the committee to find a place for Sweet Home, which proved to be the Sky-Em.

If the Huskies were left in the Val-Co League, it would be seven schools while the Sky-Em would be only five, since a request by Marist to move up to 5A has been granted.

“Trying to balance all these things, the committee came up with what was the most equitable solution,” Weber said.

He said concerns have been raised about the safety of Highway 97, if Sisters and LaPine were grouped with Madras and the Klamath Falls-area schools. Also, he said, those schools oppose that idea.

“The Klamath Falls schools don’t want it. Sisters and LaPine don’t want it,” Weber said.

Strong argues the best solution would be to put Madras in the Sky-Em Conference, put Sweet Home back in the Val-Co League and put Cascade in the Tri-Valley Conference. That would keep all the leagues at six teams.

“When you look at it, really, Sweet Home’s been backed into a corner with Madras petitioning to come west,” he said. He added that he can understand how the committee has concluded that the latest configuration is the best option, but Strong said committee members aren’t considering the impact of winter weather on Sweet Home.

“The OSAA proposal does make sense when you look at a map of Oregon, when you’re just thinking of six-team leagues and cutting down on travel,” he said. “For someone not experienced traveling over Tombstone Pass in the winter, I could see how they made this decision.

“The concern is that Tombstone is often not maintained well and has numerous curves. We prefer not to have a school bus full of student athletes returning on that road after dark,” he said, noting that due to the changes in elevation between and on the approaches to Tombstone and Santiam passes, bus drivers likely will have to chain up, take the chains off, then chain up again.

The final recommendations of the Classification and Districting Committee will be released to member schools as soon as they are complete following the Sept. 28 meeting, but that is not the final step in the public process. Member schools and the public will still have the opportunity to respond to the recommendations to the OSAA Executive Board in writing prior to and/or in person at the board’s meeting at 9 a.m. on Oct. 26, at the Doubletree-Lloyd Center in Portland. The board is expected to take action on the plan then.

Strong said if the plan doesn’t change, Sweet Home will be looking at some long bus trips.

“If this goes through, we’re probably going to have to be looking at going on Highway 58 to La-Pine, or going 126 through Marcola or 22 though Stayton to Sisters,” Strong said.

“Let’s hope Les Schwab has a good sale on tire chains.”

Written suggestions and proposals on the OSAA redistricing plan, which can be found at http://www.osaa.org, may be e-mailed to Peter Weber at [email protected]. Schools may respond in writing or in person at the redistricting committee’s next meeting on Monday, Sept. 28.

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