FALCONER - The atmosphere regarding the recently merged basketball programs of Falconer and Frewsburg school districts appears to be less tense in Falconer when compared to that in Frewsburg last week.
On Tuesday, Falconer held its Board of Education meeting at Fenner Elementary School, where all discussion centering around the controversial sports merger came from administration and staff. According to Stephen Penhollow, district superintendent, the decision to merge has offered plenty of challenges and learning opportunities since it was passed in early September.
"We continue to learn more as we go throughout with our sports mergers," Penhollow said. "Basketball is a very challenging sport, mainly because it oftentimes deals with cuts and having a limited number of participants. That is something that we've learned, that we've spent a lot of time researching and preparing for as we go into this winter sports season. As we know from working with both boards and our shared service committee, we've taken this on as to be a huge challenge to make sure that we can provide athletic opportunities for students in both districts."
Penhollow said he has brought up the challenges and complexity involved in sports mergers with the district's Section 6 executive secretary. He said the executive secretary passed on information indicating that there are currently 75 schools participating in 144 mergers within Section 6, a substantial increase over the 23 schools that had entered into a combined sports program at this time last year.
"This is a challenge that is facing each and every school district throughout Section 6, and throughout New York state," he said. "We continue to look at each decision that's been made and will be made. We try to find ways in which we can make the process better, and we're finding those things."
The quick nature of the Falconer-Frewsburg basketball merger has drawn criticism from area residents in both districts.
According to Danielle O'Connor, Frewsburg superintendent, only 10 boys were initially signed up to play in the program. She said discussions then ensued with Penhollow, in which it was determined that Falconer was also dealing with below average participation numbers and was also looking for support in the area of coaching.
At that point, the idea of a merger was proposed by Frewsburg. Unfortunately, the deadline to apply for combined sports in Section 6 was Sept. 9, forcing Frewsburg to act quickly or risk potentially losing out on boys basketball for the year.
As it stands now, the combined Falconer-Frewsburg program consists of 34 students - 15 on the JV team, 14 on the varsity team and five who were cut and landed on the practice squad.
Jamie Zaranek, Falconer's most recently appointed board member, presented these numbers at the board meeting, asking why a merger was necessary when the combined team has more than enough students participating.
Dave Nelson, Falconer's athletic director, said the decision to merge was based on the preliminary, below-average signup numbers within both districts. Based on past experience in which even fewer students turn out for practice than were signed up, coupled with the Section 6 deadline on Sept. 9, the districts were forced to make a more rapid decision than they would have liked.
With the unanticipated influx of student participation, Nelson said the issue now becomes finding means of involving as many students as possible. Rather than being entirely cut from the team, some students are being offered a chance to play on the practice squad while others are being given the chance to play modified basketball.
"For the Falconer kids, we're pretty much giving them all an opportunity to play if they choose to still do that," Nelson said. "I think that's pretty good. I'm a basketball player myself, and have been for many years. I know that the only way to get better is to play, and the only way to play is to be a part of something. And we're offering that opportunity to all of our kids in one way or another, which is better than what we've done in the past."
Todd Beckerink, board president, questioned Penhollow about the discrepancy in participation between girls and boys sports, to which Penhollow replied that an overwhelming majority of mergers within the Chautauqua Cattaraugus Athletic Association have been in boys sports.
"I'm not quite sure why that is, but I think 16 out of the 19 (mergers) that the county approved at its first meeting of the year had a connection to boys sports," Penhollow said.