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Metro East denial ‘a hard pill to swallow,' says Park Activities Director

Administration at Park High School, most Park coaches and many community members felt the newly formed Metro East Conference was a better fit for their school than the Suburban East Conference, which made the Metro East’s decision to deny Park’s entry to the new conference a “hard pill to swallow,” according to Park Activities Director Phil Kuemmel.

At a meeting on Wednesday, Sept. 18, the Metro East schools voted to reject Park’s – and St. Thomas Academy’s – applications for admittance.

“The thing that stings the most is, going back to June, we were invited to that conference,” Kuemmel said. “They invited us and then as we went through our process I kept them informed of our process and then at the very, very end of the process they decided they didn’t want us anymore. That’s the hardest pill to swallow right there.”

Park was denied with a 4-4 vote. St. Thomas was voted down 7-1.

The new Metro East Conference will include Hastings, Henry Sibley, Hill-Murray, Mahtomedi, North St. Paul, Simley, South St. Paul and Tartan high schools.

Hastings, North St. Paul, Tartan and Hill-Murray all voted to include Park, while Simley, South St. Paul, Henry Sibley and Mahtomedi voted to exclude Park.

The vote came after Park had been told by the eight Metro East schools on Aug. 16 that the group decided they didn’t want the Cottage Grove school to join them beginning in the fall of 2014.

A week before the vote, Kuemmel said he met with representatives from seven of the eight schools to “speak my piece” and lay out his feelings why Park was a good fit for them.

Kuemmel said heading into the Sept. 18 meeting he believed there was a chance Park would be voted into the Metro East. However, at the meeting — just prior to the vote — the Metro East established its bylaws, and in them it stated any additions or subtractions to the number of teams in the conference would have to be voted on by a two-thirds majority, not just a simple majority.

“With a two-thirds majority vote, out of eight people, it would’ve basically needed to be six,” Kuemmel said. “As they were creating those bylaws I knew we were sunk. I knew there was no way we were getting six.

“There was a group of four schools that changed their mind since that initial invitation and I don’t think we could’ve done anything to make that different.”

Because of decreasing enrollment and shifting demographics, Park has discussed 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.

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

On June 13, the 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.

Something changed between June and August.

“I’m not really sure what happened,” Kuemmel said. “There were some schools I guess, even though they invited us, were not aware of where we stood exactly with our enrollment and our free and reduced lunch numbers.”

According to Kuemmel, some of the Metro East Conference schools were afraid Park was too big and that it’s free and reduced lunch-price numbers were smaller than some others. Free and reduced lunch numbers are an identifier to project participation in activities. With 1,656 students (according to the 2012-13 Minnesota State High School League Directory of Member Schools) Park would have had one of the largest enrollments in the conference, but very similar 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. The largest school in the Suburban East Conference, Stillwater, has 2,670 students.

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. With Park, it would have been a nine-school conference.

Kuemmel said he believed some Metro East member schools were afraid the Minnesota State High School League may have chosen to place St. Thomas Academy in the Metro East, if it were a nine-school conference, to make it an even 10 schools.

“Truthfully, a topic that continually came up was St. Thomas Academy and where they might be placed,” Kuemmel said. “The more and more they thought about it, with us being the ninth team and a bit larger of a school they thought it increased the likelihood that St. Thomas would get placed in the Metro East.”

Kuemmel said he wouldn’t have done anything differently.

“We took them at their word in June that they wanted us and over the course of the summer I checked in to see if anything had changed and nobody told me anything had,” he said. “I don’t see us doing anything differently that would’ve changed things at all. I feel like at some point they would’ve come to this conclusion no matter what.”

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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