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Changes could come to middle school sports

Independent School District 196 is taking a top-to-bottom look at its middle school sports programs, and the result could be a reduction in the number of competitive sports available to students.

The discussions, which include school athletic directors as well as representatives from city government and community sports programs in Rosemount, Apple Valley and Eagan, began in September. But secondary education director Mark Parr said there has been talk going back three years about taking a closer look at the programs the district's middle schools offer.

The need for a middle school athletic program is changing. With students more frequently choosing early on to concentrate on one or two sports, there isn't always as much need for a program that for many serves as a chance to try out different sports before high school, when the competition gets more serious.

Parr said the district will look at budgets for middle school programs, as well as the way in which they are offered. They'll look at participation levels and at whether middle school sports are duplicated by youth sports organizations in the community.

Students currently pay fees to participate in middle school sports, but those fees don't cover the cost of operating the program, RMS athletic director Brad Schaffer said.

"Not even close," Schaffer said. "The fees that kids pay, they're like a drop in a bucket."

At Rosemount Middle School, participation has been up in the 11 sports available to students. That's good news for RMS, but it also creates some problems in a district where middle schools play most of their games against other district schools.

"If you've got one school that's got an enrollment of just over 800 and another that's got enrollment in the neighborhood of 1,200 then right off the bat you've got more teams, more participation and it creates an automatic inequity just on that basis alone," Parr said.

Finances haven't been a big part of the discussion yet, but Schaffer said there has been some talk about whether cuts to the middle school athletic budget could help the programs come closer to breaking even. There has also been some talk about whether it makes sense to turn some programs over entirely to community sports organizations.

For the most part, though, discussion to this point has focused on developing a big-picture view of middle school sports programs.

"We're trying to do this as a package deal, meaning that we want to talk about all the sports first and then phase in what we do. But we want to have a very good idea what we do with all of them before we do anything with any one." Parr said. Parr called the conversation so far, "really enriching."

By January Parr hopes to have an overall view of the programs and one sport to look at in more detail.

Even if the district eliminates some school-run intramural sports, though, Parr said it would not abandon athletic opportunities entirely. Parr said the elimination of any competitive sports would likely include the creation of intramural leagues.

"Having after-school activities, whether it be athletics or other activities ... makes for a well-rounded student," Schaffer said.