The ‘Who’ And The ‘Why’ Of The Middle School Travel Ban

Public opposition to a middle school sports travel ban adopted by the Juneau School Board last month continues to be one-sided, and the anonymity of the ban’s community supporters is breeding skeptics of the official explanation.

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Students and parents protest the middle school sports travel ban during a school summit at Thunder Mountain High School last month. About 40 people protested. Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO - Juneau.
Students and parents protest the middle school sports travel ban during a school summit at Thunder Mountain High School last month. About 40 people protested. Photo by Heather Bryant, KTOO – Juneau.

Floyd Dryden Middle School eighth grader Kathy Tran is one of many venting about the policy – and the way it was adopted.

“They said that there was a lot of people that supported this ban. And I was like, ‘Who?’” Tran said.

In more than a dozen interviews with board members, school officials, students and parents, no one has been willing or able to answer that question. Not one person spoke in favor of the ban during public testimony at the school board’s two meetings on the policy.

Board members say there is community support for the ban, but are unwilling to identify from whom.

“At this point, you know, we’re hearing it off the record,” said school board member Barbara Thurston, one of the three “no” votes.

Meanwhile, parents are organizing opposition. About 40 people picketed a school board meeting last month at Thunder Mountain High School. A Facebook group called Save our Middle School Sportscreated in February has 209 members. And in a nearly empty room in a nearly empty mall on a Tuesday, a dozen people were putting together a repeal campaign.

Jennifer Lindley, a Floyd Dryden mom and repeal organizer, said the school board acted undemocratically.

“They voted in favor of an unspoken minority that none of us can seem to find,” Lindley said. “I don’t know who my counterpart is.”

School board members on both sides said there is no hidden agenda, and that the board itself raised the travel policy issue.

The four school board members who voted for the ban argued it reduces the burden on already strained budgets and reduces the fundraising borne by local businesses and the community. They said it eliminates unfair differences between how travel requests are handled at Juneau’s two main middle schools.

School Board Vice President Sean O’Brien, said casting his “yes” vote was “agonizing.”

“The challenge is, is we have an obligation to kinda create a, a relatively equitable playing field,” O’Brien said.

Floyd Dryden Principal Tom Milliron uses a case-by-case approach, weighing the amount of time lost in the classroom against the potential benefits of travel.

Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School Principal Molly Yerkes does not allow out-of-town sports travel. She said it’s not right to spend so much time and effort arranging travel when staffing cuts have left her school without a fulltime certified nurse and sometimes a single adult supervising 150 students at lunch.

Neither principal asked the school board to weigh in, though Yerkes said she does support the ban because it clarifies district priorities.

O’Brien said significant differences in kids’ opportunities, like sports travel, could lead to school shopping.

School board member Lisa Worl voted against the travel ban. She said the travel policy is one of many differences between the schools, for example, with classes offered and community involvement.

“So there just is a real difference between the schools. I mean, there’s no right and wrong, it just is.”

Worl said the travel ban sets a board precedent favoring uniformity over local control.

If the budget and staffing situation changes, Yerkes said she expects the school board would lift the ban and said she would reinstitute out-of-town travel.

“And so I think that Molly Yerkes has done the best that she can with what she has, and focus it on more of an intramural, cause that way she can get more kids to play in sports,” Worl said.

Opponents say the budget effects of out-of-town travel are negligible, because it’s paid for almost exclusively with fundraising. The school district pays indirect costs, such as substitutes for teachers traveling as coaches. They say if Juneau cannot or is not willing to support fundraising, it fails.

The Juneau Chamber of Commerce, whose members independently bear much of that cost, has not taken a position. President and CEO Cathie Roemmich says her board of directors intended to discuss the ban last month, but put it off because several members were out of town.

The district did erroneously identify one party in favor of the ban, its Activities Advisory Committee.

A district memo plainly states, “The Activities Advisory Committee is in agreement with the revision.”

“That couldn’t be farther from the truth,” said Activities Advisory Committee member Tom Rutecki. He’s been a member since it was founded in 2008. The committee discussed middle school travel last school year, but never made recommendations to the school board.

“And I pointed that out to them, I sent them individual emails, and I said, ‘Why are, why are you saying this? We never did this,’” Rutecki said.

It was not corrected in the memo, though Superintendent Glenn Gelbrich verbally noted the error during the meeting. He declined interview requests about the ban.

Seventh grader Leah Kleinman plays basketball at Floyd Dryden. The night the school board adopted the travel ban policy, she presented a 350-signature petition opposing it.

“You play, and you have fun, then you want to like, travel somewhere,” Kleinman said. “It’s like, ‘Hey guys, let’s go Ketchikan, yeah.’ But, now it’s like, you’re just gonna stay there and you’re just gonna play DZ. And then they will eventually stop coming to us.”

That’s already begun, even though the ban doesn’t take full effect until next school year. Middle school officials in Ketchikan and Sitka say their athletes aren’t as likely to come to Juneau, if Juneau stops traveling.

Floyd Dryden students Kathy Tran and Leah Kleinman said they have learned something from the ban: There’s a lot of politics in sports.

Jeremy Hsieh is the deputy managing editor of the KTOO newsroom in Juneau. He’s a podcast fiend who’s worked in journalism since high school as a reporter, editor and television producer. He ran Gavel Alaska for 360 North from 2011 to 2016, and is big on experimenting with novel tools and mediums (including the occasional animated gif) to tell stories and demystify the news. Jeremy’s an East Coast transplant who moved to Juneau in 2008.

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