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Park High School invited to form new conference

On Thursday, June 13, eight area high schools extended an invitation to Park to leave the Suburban East — its home since the 2001-02 season — and join them in the formation of a new conference. Bulletin file photo

If Park High School chooses to leave the Suburban East Conference it now has a place to go.

On Thursday, June 13, eight area high schools extended an invitation to Park to leave the Suburban East — its home since the 2001-02 season — and join them in the formation of a new conference.

“We have some work to do in terms of getting district, School Board and community approval, but the invitation is there for Park High School,” Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel said. “They want us. Those eight schools are waiting for us.”

The new conference would look much like the former St. Paul Suburban. It would include Park, Hastings, North St. Paul, Tartan, Simley, Henry Sibley, South St. Paul, Mahtomedi and Hill-Murray and would launch the fall of 2014.

“What it comes down to is, overall, what is the best fit?” Kuemmel said. “There’s no perfect fit, but overall how many schools are we like in the Suburban East? Without Hastings there are probably two. In the new conference, honestly, I think that number is five or six. We’re like more schools over there.”

Because of decreasing enrollment and shifting demographics, Park has discussed the topic of leaving the Suburban East Conference since 2009. According to Kuemmel, prompting the idea of a possible change was a decrease in the amount of kids playing sports at Park High School and in some Cottage Grove Athletic Association youth programs, not just wins and losses.

“We’re not doing this to see how many conference championship banners we can put up in our gym,” Kuemmel said. “It’s not all about winning. Everyone wants to win, that’s why we keep score, but this is about finding a competitive balance. We want every kid on every team to have the opportunity to play a competitive game. Right now with some of the schools we’re going up against that’s just not happening. That’s tough on kids.”

Kuemmel said he believes having a better competitive balance would likely increase participation in all sports and the culture at Park.

“I don’t have the magic answer that says it’s going to automatically increase participation, but I believe it is going to help us, definitely,” Kuemmel said. “There are a lot of kids who are working very hard. I worry that they’re thinking in the back of their minds why they’re doing it if they feel they’re not going to have a chance to compete. I think it would make a bid difference if they knew that they could be competitive in every single game they played every season. It’s tough when we hear kids say ‘why would I come out for that, all you do is lose.’”

In February 2012, Park moved toward leaving the Suburban East when the results of the school’s Community Input Night showed community members at the meeting favored a conference change by a 2-to-1 margin. Kuemmel said the Classic Suburban was the school’s first choice if it was to leave the SEC. The second option was to form a new conference. Last year the idea of Park joining the Classic Suburban Conference was dealt a blow when the CSC unofficially communicated it was not looking to expand at the time. But, this past May, the Classic Suburban dissolved itself, opening the door for Park to connect with Hastings and a group of seven schools from the disbanded CSC.

“I don’t want to say it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, but we’ve been talking about this for a long time,” Kuemmel said. “Finally there is some movement and we have an invitation to do something now. If we wait a year or two, it’s safe to say the opportunity won’t be there. This doesn’t happen very often.”

All three District 833 high schools – East Ridge, Park and Woodbury – are in the Suburban East, but Park teams generally have fared worse among conference opponents overall. Schools in the same district, but in different conferences, is not without precedent. Irondale and Mounds View high schools are each in School District 621, but in different conferences as are a number of schools in the Robbinsdale school district. Kuemmel stated he would still urge all the Park programs to schedule games against East Ridge and Woodbury every year in non-conference play.

Compared to Woodbury and East Ridge, along with a number of other SEC schools, Park has a higher percentage of students from low-income families. Kuemmel has said Park’s “socioeconomic demographics” are a factor in student-athlete participation.

An identifier used by state agencies to project participation in activities is the percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced lunch programs at schools. The free and reduced lunch program numbers are used in the Minnesota State High School League’s enrollment calculations when assigning schools to different classes. Based on its formula, a student on free or reduced lunch program counts for only six-tenths of a student toward that school’s enrollment due to the lower amount of recorded participation in activities by those students.

According to the 2012-13 Minnesota State High School League Directory of Member Schools, Park has an adjusted enrollment of 1,656, which is over 1,000 fewer students than the largest school in the SEC — Stillwater, which has 2,670 students. Park has similar enrollments to SEC schools like Woodbury (1,715), Mounds View (1,671) and East Ridge (1,543). But, Park also has similar demographics to North St. Paul (1,671), Tartan (1,581), Hastings (1,452) and Henry Sibley (1,201). The smallest public school in the new conference would be South St. Paul, with an enrollment of 768.

Hastings being brought into the fold added to the conversation, according to Kuemmel.

“Hastings is one of those schools that’s very much like us,” he said. “That’s another thing that’s a factor in our decision. All of a sudden there’s one less school in the Suburban East that’s like us and one more in the new conference that is like us.”

Geographically, the newly proposed conference would make more sense than the current Suburban East, Kuemmel said. Mahtomedi would be the farthest away, but still closer than Forest Lake, Mounds View, Stillwater and White Bear Lake.

“The main thing is that we want to make the decision based on what’s best for the student-athletes – it’s about the kids,” Kuemmel said. “But, we really would save a lot of money on transportation. It’s also going to mean less time out of class for the kids and home earlier at night after games. This does make more sense geographically.”

According to Kuemmel, the next steps in the process for Park is to have a meeting with the entire coaching staff to discuss the issue internally, then to hold a second community input night to re-acquire the community’s feedback on the topic. Both those meetings don’t have an official date, but are tentatively planned for late July, Kuemmel said.

Kuemmel believed the majority of coaches’ and community members’ feelings on the subject won’t have changed over the past 15 months since the last meeting.

“It wasn’t like it was unanimous last time,” Kuemmel said. “The majority of people were in favor of a change and some were not. But, honestly, I’ve spoken to some people who were opposed to the move that night who have kind of changed their view a bit and now see it as a good move.”

Since last year’s community meeting, Park has a new principal and District 833 has a new superintendent, so the July meetings will help with their decision. If nothing changes from the past community input meeting, Kuemmel said he believes a change in conferences would likely be made official at the school board meeting at end of August.

“The principal and district administration is on board – if we can show that the coaches and community are behind it and we can prove it’s a benefit to our kids here in the building,” Kuemmel said. “If we do that, they’ll support it.”

Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
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