School and Park District merger passes initial tests

By Matt Nestor
Sports Columnist

In an effort to help cut into a $50 million deficit that faces Rockford Public School District 205, Superintendent Dr. LaVonne M. Sheffield has reached out to the Rockford Park District for help in consolidating control of school sports programs.

Preliminary discussions started by Sheffield and Rockford Park District Executive Director Tim Dimke center on a plan that could see the Park District take control of elementary and middle school programs while helping cut down the cost schools incur in running their high school programs.

This is the first effort in trying to maintain the status quo for sports in Rockford public schools without making cuts to some—or all—of the sports programs.

“We are trying to maintain a comprehensive sports program for the Rockford Public Schools,” Sheffield said. “I asked the Park District to explore a partnership with us to see how we could do what we do more efficiently. If I can get things done more efficiently and cheaper, I can and I should, so I can reallocate that money to the classroom.”

The hope for the planned partnership is to not only save money, but to help build a better feeder program for the high schools. Sheffield said more continuity in the program will help the schools compete at a better level, and, it is hoped, generate more revenue.

“My immediate goal is to achieve a cost savings so I can maintain the program,” she said. “My dream for athletics is to have a K-12 program. We don’t have enough administrators to focus on all that. My long-range goal is to have a comprehensive, 12-month program.”

According to Dimke, the plan would call for the Park District to take over the planning for the sports programs. This would include facilities and scheduling.

Among the ideas they have come up with to try to save money include the consolidation of facilities, including upgrading select facilities and utilizing those few facilities for all public school sports programs.

Dimke was quick to point out, however, that they do not want to take away the unique aspects to each school and their program.

“In a seamless transition, we want every school to have their team, have their same names and have their jerseys,” he said. “They would be associated with the school, just as they are now. What we want to do is integrate the system better than we do now.”

One of the chief concerns thus far has been whether the Illinois High School Sports Association (IHSA) would approve such a plan. The IHSA has very strict policies that require the school district to be in charge of the programs.

The two districts have started discussion with the IHSA to see if the plan can work. But Dimke said any preliminary plans can be modified to ensure they are completely IHSA compatible so students can compete against other member schools and the state championship series.

According to IHSA Associate Executive Director Marty Hickman, the initial proposal presented by the district appears to be in compliance with IHSA bylaws.

“After our discussion, I don’t think there are major sticking points,” Hickman said. “Our main concern was that our membership is made up of schools, and the only way students can enter our programs is through the school. During our discussion today, it became clear that the school was planning to maintain oversight and control of the programs, but was looking to the Park District for ways they could consolidate facilities, scheduling, etc., to save some money.”

The other issue with the IHSA would come down to eligibility. Hickman said the Park District can help the schools out with many things, but that the school would have to continue to determine eligibility to play.

“I believe there are some things the school can do with the Park District that will not jeopardize the district’s standing with IHSA,” Hickman said. “The Park District cannot be the party responsible for checking and maintaining the IHSA’s academic standards. The school must be the entity that provides oversight of the interscholastic program.”

The hope, according to Dimke, is that students and parents will not be able to tell any differences at the end of it all. Coaches will still be hired and paid from within the schools and maintain the relationship with the student-athletes.

He also stressed there will be no additional costs to taxpayers. All savings would be passed along to the school district and allow the district to use the extra money as needed.

“We’re projecting that there will be considerable savings,” Dimke said. “That savings would be passed along to the school district. Our goal is to ensure that every child has at least the opportunity they have now, if not more.”

And Sheffield hopes that not only the savings but a smooth transition into the new program will help everybody get on board with this plan to keep the athletic programs as they are now.

“It’s not just a win-win for the Park District and the school district,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everybody. It brings our community together in a way where we support each other.”

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