2017-02-03 / Community

High school teams seek return to SMAA

Kennebunk High School competed in the Southwestern Maine Activities Assocation from 2003-2013.
By Wm. Duke Harrington Staff Writer

KENNEBUNK — After four seasons of testing its athletic mettle against smaller schools in the Western Maine Conference, Kennebunk High School may soon move back up to battle the larger schools of Class A by rejoining the Southwestern Maine Activities Association (SMAA).

At their Jan. 23 meeting, the RSU 21 Board of Directors voted 6-4 to approve having Athletic Director Joe Schwartzman apply to have the high school rejoin the SMAA, where it competed for a decade, from 2003-2013.

Although the board briefly considered a suggestion from Superintendent Katie Hawes to delay the vote in order to poll the public on the proposal, Schwartzman had to put in an application to the SMAA by Jan. 25.

The four board members to vote against the move — Matthew Fadiman, Emily Kahn, Lionel Menard, and Mike Mosher — were all Kennebunk residents, which forced a tally of weighted votes before the decision was declared final.

Although Kennebunk has six representatives on the school board, compared to three, each, for Kennebunkport and Arundel, that ratio is not consistent with population differences in the three towns. Therefore, each board member’s vote carries a certain number of points, so that each vote carries the same relative weight.

The vote of a Kennebunk representative is “worth” 98 points, compared to 69 for Arundel representatives and 68 for those from Kennebunkport. That made the weighted vote to jump ship from the WMC to the SMAA 441-392.

School board members Jeffrey Cole of Kennebunk and Peter Fellenz of Kennebunkport were absent from the meeting and a no vote from either would have tipped the scales to the status quo.

One of those who did vote against the move, Emily Kahn, said she did so because the public had no time to weigh in on the change.

“I don’t feel capable of making a decision tonight, because I really do feel this is a community issue,” she said. “I just think we need to take in more input because this impacts a lot of kids.”

Although she did suggest a delay, Hawes also said anyone interested in speaking to the issue had an opportunity to be heard at the Jan. 23 meeting, because the agenda for the session had been posted on the district website.

“So, this has been out there for about a week,” she said.

Jack Reetz of Arundel was the only member of the public seen at the meeting, and he did not speak to the issue.

Schwartzman said the SMAA board would vote on the KHS application at its Feb. 2 meeting. That vote took place after the deadline for this week’s Post.

With 678 students at the start of the current school year, KHS is second only to Falmouth High School (696) of the 19 schools in the WMC.

There are currently 17 schools in the SMAA. However, Falmouth also plans to join the SMAA, leaving an average enrollment of fewer than 400 at the remaining WCM members, ranging from Greeley High School (656) down to North Yarmouth Academy (142).

If KHS joins Falmouth in the SMAA, it would become the smallest school in that conference, other than Cheverus High School (467) and the Maine Girls Academy (former Catherine McAuley High School) at 123. The remaining schools average more than 970 students, each, ranging from Thornton Academy in Saco (1,412) to Westbrook High School (743).

Enrollment at KHS is projected to get no higher than 708 students between now and 2022.

The conventional wisdom is that larger schools field stronger sports teams because they have a larger talent pool from which to draw upon. Some board members feared that moving to the SMAA could spell an end to playoff seasons for many KHS teams.

“When we were in [the SMAA] we would struggle to compete and I think some of that was because we were the second or third smallest school, competing against schools that were two or three times the size of us,” Mosher said. “From the kids’ standpoint, I’m not sure I would want to put them in that situation again. Personally, I don’t know if that’s fair.”

“If we go this route, I want us to be very aware of how it’s affecting kids,” King agreed. “When you go up against a school that has twice as many kids, that can be very demoralizing. Some of these schools [in the SMAA] are 75 percent bigger than we are.

“I don’t want us to go from where we are now back to those losing schedules,” King said. “I won’t even tell you how many football games I sat through while my kids were in school and never saw them win. And they were out there playing their hearts out, but we were playing against schools that we were totally outclassed by.”

However, Swartzman pointed out that the conference only determines a team’s regular season opponents and schedule.

The Maine Principals Association divides schools up into Class A, Class B, etc., based on enrollment numbers, using a different cutoff line for nearly every sport. It is the MPA classification which determines who teams face in the playoffs.

So, in football, KHS would remain a Class B team, as would the volleyball and boys’ hockey teams.

Meanwhile, 20 KHS teams, including soccer, baseball, and basketball, are already ranked as Class A for playoff purposes, or will be starting next year.

For those teams, a change of conference would mean facing larger Class A teams during the regular season, as opposed to the current line-up of smaller Class B and Class C schools. Still, Schwartzman argued that could be a plus.

“There’s the potential that in certain sports you may not make the playoffs,” he said. “But I’m trying to achieve that balance and make it so when they get to the playoffs, they’re competitive. That’s my goal.

“With us and our school size, we’re in a really tough situation,” Schwartzman said. “But the [enrollment] numbers across the board are coming down and I don’t see us staying a Class B school in any sport for much longer. So, I think it’s better for us to join the SMAA and have a Class A schedule. As a whole, I think that benefits us in the playoffs.

“The biggest impact it’s going to have is on the soccer, field hockey and baseball/ softball schedules, and in some part basketball, as far as who we play in the regular season,” Schwartzman added.

“We’re in Class A for the playoffs regardless,” agreed school board member Brad Huot, of Kennebunk. “So, we’re actually giving ourselves a better chance in the post season by playing the teams we are going to play then anyway more often. It gives us a better competitive advantage to play these teams in the regular season.”

But, as important as who KHS plays during the regular season is where.

Kennebunk buses travel an average of 35.9 miles for away games to WMC schools, regularly logging trips as far away as Fryeburg and Auburn (56 miles, each), Poland (54 miles), and Naples

(53.5 miles).

Facing off against SMAA teams would shorten the average trip to 21.2 miles, with the longest excursion being Windham, at 34 miles from KHS.

Schwartzman did not have a calculation handy at the Jan. 23 meeting for how much the switch might save RSU 21 in fuel and vehicle maintenance costs per year. However, there was another measure more easily quantifiable — the classroom time lost when students have to leave in the middle of the school day in order to make game time at a distant school.

“The impact on instruction isn’t a small thing, either,” Hawes said. “Some of these kids are getting out of school less than halfway through the last 80-minute block of time, out of four in the day. So, they’re missing 50 minutes of instruction for the day on a regular basis.”

Considering 295 KHS students (about 44 percent of the student body) participate in activities, that amounts to a lot of lost time, Hawes said.

If nothing else, school board members appeared to come away from the Jan. 23 meeting with a greater appreciation of the many balls Schwartzman has to juggle through three seasons, as they reviewed a spreadsheet of each KHS team, its regular and playoff season classifications, and the cutoff line needed to fall in each.

“This is really complicated,” Fadiman said. “I used to think you only had to be good at sports to be the athletic director, but you need to be good at math.”

Duke Harrington can be reached at news@kennebunkpost.com.

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