School board considering legal action MSHAA

Published 11:35 am Monday, November 19, 2018

By Jeremy Weldon

South Panola High School’s move to Region 2 for sports activities will more than double the district’s travel budget and require student athletes to travel 13,000 more miles to away games over the next two years, according to Superintendent Tim Wilder.

The South Panola School District Board of Trustees on Tuesday asked board attorney Ryan Revere to explore any legal means available to the district to have the high school returned to Region 1 after hearing Wilder’s presentation on the matter at the regular meeting of the board.

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South Panola has always been in Region 1 (sometimes called districts in past years) along with other North Mississippi schools with the same size classification. Every two years, the Mississippi High School Activities Association classifies each of the state’s high schools according to enrollment from 1A to 6A.

South Panola is a 6A school, and has always competed in Region 1 along with Oxford, Tupelo, and the DeSoto County schools. The top 32 schools by enrollment are classified as 6A – and then those schools are divided into four regions with eight members each, resulting in two “north” and two “south” regions.

In October, the MHSAA moved Olive Branch from 5A to 6A, making an imbalance of 17 schools in the north half of the state with the 6A classification. The result was South Panola being moved to the other “north” region and Northwest Rankin High School moved from that region to a “south” region.

The new regional divisions will be for the 2019 and 2020 school years.

This realignment left South Panola in Region 2 with schools mostly in the Jackson area and Starkville. South Panola’s new region now includes Starkville, Murrah (Jackson), Madison Central, Germantown (Gluckstadt), Clinton, Warren Central (Vicksburg), and Greenville.

Wilder, along with SPHS Principal Rodney Flowers, Athletic Director Trea Higdon, and Head Football Coach Ricky Woods, met with the MHSAA executive committee on Nov. 8, appealing the decision, and asking that South Panola be moved back to Region 1, creating a nine-member region for the true North Mississippi schools and a seven-member region for the Jackson area schools.

In the appeal process, Wilder said he stressed the safety of students, the logistics of long trips, and the financial impact on the district’s budget. Wilder said he was notified by email later that day that the appeal had been denied on a 6-5 vote.

The vote came down to that of Oxford School District Superintendent Brian Harvey and DeSoto County Director of Athletics Anthony Jenkins. Wilder’s appeal asked the board to return South Panola to Region 1, but Harvey voted against the proposal and Jenkins abstained.

Those two votes kept South Panola in Region 2 and kept Oxford and the DeSoto County School, safely in Region 1 and away from the Tigers as district opponents. A yea vote by Either Harvey or Jenkins would have passed the proposal and kept South Panola in the north, and in the same region as its traditional sports opponents. A tie on the committee would result in a successful appeal by the rules of the committee.

Because four teams from each region make the football playoffs, DeSoto County high schools can now be assured of at least two spots every postseason.

In football, teams play each of their regional competitors each season. In baseball, softball, basketball, soccer, and other sports, teams in each region are split into four-team districts and South Panola will be included with Starkville, Greenville, and Germantown (near Jackson).

“The shortest trip for these teams will be over a hundred miles away,” Wilder said. “All of these sports will travel and half of their games will be on a weeknight when they will come back in school the next day after having been out well past midnight.”

Football games would not be so hard on students, Wilder said, considering they would have Saturdays to rest, but most of the other teams play at least once every week and often twice on Saturdays.

Not only is the move expected to create a hardship for the students and their family members who usually travel to out of town games, but the same will be true for other schools and their fans who will be less likely to drive two hours on a weeknight to watch a game.

“This will absolutely kill our home gates,” Wilder said. “Tupelo and Oxford bring good crowds to our baseball and softball games and we won’t be playing them as much now. Even on Friday nights I think we see a major decrease so it’s going to have a financial impact.”

“I just felt like it’s primarily a safety issue. That’s almost 13,000 more miles we will have students on the road, predominantly on I-55,” Wilder said. “These numbers also don’t include the wear and tear it’s going to have on school buses. We’re already having to replaces buses at a pretty rapid pace anyway.”

Wilder gave board members a chart comparing  travel costs for athletic teams in the past two years, and what those costs would have been if South Panola were competing in Region 2.  Fuel costs during that period were $4,771 and driver pay was $13,218. Those numbers would have been $8,764 and $24,839 considering the further trips, he said.

The school district also pays $5 meal costs for athletes on trips over two hours, and spent $7,480 in the last two years. That expense would have been $17,140 in the new region. Overall, the district would have spent $50,743 on travel cost.

Additionally, Wilder said that seven buses are needed for away football games, including seats for the band, and the district doesn’t have seven extra buses. Regular routes are routinely completed before the band is able to load for away games, and with the increase in travel distance those buses wouldn’t be available early enough for the band to arrive at away games.