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Park High School blocked from joining new conference

Park High School athletics, including the Wolfpack football team pictured here, will remain in the Suburban East Conference after the school was denied inclusion in a newly forming conference of east-metro schools. (Bulletin file photo)

Park High School’s out before it was even in.

Just as it prepared to get District 833 School Board approval to leave the Suburban East Conference, Park was booted from consideration for a new conference.

School District 833 officials said Friday that Park learned a day earlier that a newly forming conference of east-metro schools had met without Park’s knowledge and voted to exclude the Cottage Grove school from joining them beginning in the fall of 2014.

The schools informed Park afterward by phone of the decision, ending months of review and solicitation of community input on whether the school should leave the Suburban East for the new conference.

Park Principal Kerry Timmerman said he was frustrated by how the decision played out. He said Park had worked all along to keep the other schools informed of its process and to make sure the other schools still were interested in Park.

“We were surprised, to say the least, that they met without us,” Timmerman said in an interview. “We did not know they were going to meet. Our position was … we would have enjoyed A) knowing there was a meeting and B) being invited to the meeting.”

Further, Timmerman said he and Activities Director Phil Kuemmel were not told this week why Park was voted out.

“This is an unfortunate turn of events for our Park students and community,” added District 833 Superintendent Keith Jacobus. “We are uncertain why this occurred, but want our community to know that District 833 worked through a process that assured us there was a desire for Park to seek the new conference opportunity. We are also confident in Park’s potential to continue to be competitive and thrive in the Suburban East Conference.”

The new conference is expected to include Hastings, Henry Sibley, Hill-Murray, Mahtomedi, North St. Paul, Simley, South St. Paul and Tartan high schools.

Some of the schools were concerned that Park was too big, said Brian Ihrke, activities director for Henry Sibley, who commented on the decision but was not speaking as a representative of the other schools.

Park would have had one of the largest enrollments in the conference, and it was not certain earlier this summer that Park would join even as eight other schools already had committed, Ihrke said.

Park was informed in July that there were concerns about its size and the schools’ “likeness,” Ihrke said. Park has a smaller percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunches than five of the other eight districts.

“Maybe they believed that they informed us, but clearly we did not get that message,” said Timmerman, adding that Park would not have spent time pursuing approval of a conference switch if its inclusion in the new conference was uncertain. The District 833 School Board planned to vote on the switch Aug. 22.

Another factor in the schools’ decision to vote out Park was that it is easier to schedule competitions for a conference with an even number of teams, Ihrke said. With Park, it would have been a nine-school conference.

“By and large, we would like to stay with eight,” he said.

Ihrke said he feels bad if Timmerman and Kuemmel are upset over the decision, and he regretted the process that was used.

“Probably the biggest things we screwed up on was not having them at the table,” he said.

Park administrators and coaches had been approached by the other schools initially and explored leaving the Suburban East in favor of the new conference in which the schools are smaller and have a similar student population to Park’s.

The Suburban East includes some schools from more affluent communities and with lower percentages of students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a federal education indicator of poverty.

The Suburban East includes Park, East Ridge, Woodbury, Cretin-Derham Hall, Forest Lake, Hastings, Mounds View, Roseville, Stillwater and White Bear Lake high schools.

Some Park sports struggle mightily to compete against other Suburban East opponents, and administrators and coaches said joining a new conference where the competition was more even could encourage more students to participate in sports and could improve school culture.

Still, Timmerman said he believes Park can be competitive in the Suburban East. He said it’s a good fit, but Park wanted to listen when the teams from the other, soon-to-form conference inquired.

Park has no alternative plans to leave the Suburban East, Timmerman said.

“We won’t be looking anywhere else,” he said.

Scott Wente

Scott Wente has been editor at the South Washington County Bulletin since 2011. He worked as a reporter at other Forum Communications newspapers from 2003 to 2011.

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