Sports has long blazed new paths in American society.
Look no further than the importance of Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in 1947 or the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's shocking gold medal for proof.
Is it possible sports will show the way when it comes to school mergers in Chautauqua County?
It has been a mountainous climb to merge schools in our county regardless of arguments made about mergers improving the quality of instruction and providing more opportunities for children, in some cases at a lower cost. For varying reasons, however, mergers are turned down when they do make it through the tortuous merger process that is part of New York state law. We have known for years about the declining enrollments of our school districts, but knowledge of the numbers has only twice translated into merged school districts.
Mergers are often defeated by intangible arguments, things like loss of community identity, or specious arguments like lack of opportunity to play sports or be in the band. It would appear recent history is turning those arguments on their head, because school sports teams are now becoming a casualty of the decades-long trend of declining enrollments.
Even as recently as 10 years ago, one or two small schools would see the need to share one or two sports teams. Now, enough schools are looking to share football teams that Section 6 will be able to eliminate an entire division of competition next year, according to discussion at a recent Clymer Central School board meeting. Athletic directors throughout the region see sports mergers as the best way to make sure sports are even offered to area youth. The athletic directors are doing the right thing, but their solution is only a short-term fix.
We have a proud athletic tradition here in Chautauqua County, but let's be honest - there aren't many Shane Conlans or Jenn Suhrs in our midst. Our area is more likely to make an imprint on the world using our child's brains than our child's athletic prowess. Alas, eliminating French classes or advanced chemistry doesn't raise as many eyebrows or anger as many parents as liminating soccer or football.
Much like increased school aid and the STAR program, athletic mergers allow taxpayers to keep putting off consolidation by papering over the systemic problems with having 18 school districts in a county of roughly 134,000 people. We wonder whether area residents would be more willing to merge schools if sports simply had to be dropped when there aren't enough participants.
Perhaps that would be the hole in the dam that opens the floodgates of consolidation.