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Park High School coaches want conference change, but what about community? Public meeting planned

Park High School athletic staff see leaving the Suburban East Conference as a way to bolster the school's sports programs, but first want to hear from the community.

The school's activities department is inviting students, parents, teachers and local residents to a "community input night" on Park athletics and activities Wednesday, Jan. 11. It will begin at 7 p.m. in the Park lecture hall.

The meeting, to be led by Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel, comes as coaches and staff are looking at ways to improve the school's competition and bolster participation. Kuemmel said there is general consensus among coaches that the best solution is to leave the big-school-dominated Suburban East Conference, where Park has struggled to compete in many sports.

Kuemmel acknowledged that any decision about a conference change would require District 833 School Board approval and that so far discussion mostly has involved school coaches and staff.

"We're trying to improve the climate in the whole entire building" he said of Park.

Superintendent Mark Porter said any proposed change would need the support of the broader Park community, not just the consensus of a small group of coaches. He and School Board members encouraged Kuemmel to solicit more ideas and feedback.

"It does need a broader input before you would move this thing ahead," Porter said of a conference change. "We're willing to explore it."

All three District 833 high schools are in the Suburban East, but Park teams generally have fared worse among conference opponents.

Kuemmel said Park has "unique challenges" that East Ridge and Woodbury high schools may not face and said school staff and coaches believe the district should consider "expanded opportunities" to help Park students.

Park has a higher percentage of students from low-income families, and Kuemmel said Park's "socioeconomic demographics" are a factor in student-athlete participation. For instance, he said, there are fewer youth traveling athletic teams in Park's boundary than in Woodbury's or East Ridge's, and those teams serve as feeder systems to the high school programs.

Also, Kuemmel said, more Park students may have to decide between getting an after-school job and playing sports.

"I would say that definitely comes into play," he said.

A smaller pool of participants can make it harder to compete against larger schools, he said.

Kuemmel said some Park teams are competitive in the Suburban East, but a conference change may be better for "the overall culture of Park athletics."

The Classic Suburban Conference could be an attractive alternative for Park because the schools are similar in size and athletic offerings, Kuemmel said.

"We're not just going to go anywhere," he said.

For instance, Park is not eyeing the St. Paul City Conference as an alternative, as some have speculated.

"That's not going to happen," he said.

If Park were to leave the Suburban East and was not picked up by the Classic Suburban, it may explore creating a new conference, Kuemmel said. That was unsuccessfully floated in previous discussions about Park's conference alignment.

Even if Park left the Suburban East, the school still would want to compete against intra-district rivals Woodbury and East Ridge in non-conference competition, Kuemmel said.

Short of a conference change, there are other ways District 833 could help Park, Kuemmel said. For instance, it could restore team bus service to away games at Woodbury and East Ridge. That was eliminated in budget reductions, and student-athletes now must carpool or rely on bus service paid for by booster clubs. Those clubs increasingly are being used as a funding source.

Kuemmel said that school officials want to get public input on "a number of issues affecting Park High school." He said the school's focus is to offer "high quality, competitive athletic programs at Park."

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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