PORTLAND — The U.S. Department of Education said Thursday it has reached an agreement with Portland’s public schools to ensure that female students in the district will have athletic opportunities that are equal to those of boys.
The agreement, announced by the department’s Office of Civil Rights, addresses inequities under Title IX found in an audit of the athletic programs at Portland and Deering high schools that began in 2011.
“We were chosen randomly,” said Melanie Craig, the athletic director at Deering High. “The OCR comes in and they go through every piece of your athletic department. They go back through three years of rosters and they come in and evaluate your facilities.”
Two major discrepancies stood out:
• The first was that the district failed to provide girls with athletic opportunities in proportion to their enrollment numbers at either high school in 2010-11 and 2011-12.
“OCR’s investigation revealed a disparity of close to 4 percentage points between the enrollment of girls in high school and their participation in the district’s athletics programs,” the office said in a statement. “Had the district provided equal participation, girls would have been offered approximately 120 additional athletic participation opportunities.”
• The second discrepancy was that the district’s athletic facilities favored boys. In particular, a room for coaches at Deering High was accessible only through the boys locker room, which also had a team room with benches and a white board.
In addition, the baseball teams at both Deering and Portland play home games at Hadlock Field, a professional minor-league facility that seats 7,000, while the softball teams play at Payson Park (for Portland High) or at Deering High.
“There’s obviously a pretty severe discrepancy there,” Craig said. “We’re never going to be able to build another Hadlock Field, but what can we do to make the playing field a little more level?”
Early in the process, Craig said, there was a fear that programs for boys would have to be cut back in order to comply with Title IX, the transformational 1972 law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in any educational program that receives federal funding.
Instead, Craig said, “the focus was on, how do we make some of these (girls) programs better?”
Construction at Deering High over the summer resulted in a team room for girls similar to that available to the boys, as well as an office for Deering’s female coaches.
The district also consolidated its various booster programs under one umbrella to more equitably distribute funds raised outside the school budget. The OCR audit reported widespread use of “volunteer” coaches of boys sports receiving compensation from booster clubs. The same was not true for girls sports, a discrepancy “substantial enough to deny female athletes an equal opportunity to receive coaching,” according to the compliance review.
A survey taken in the spring revealed significant interest in adding girls volleyball, the only sport sanctioned by the Maine Principals’ Association not currently offered for girls at either school. Accordingly, both Deering and Portland will start volleyball programs beginning next fall.
Mike Connolly, now in his second year as athletic director at Portland High, said a group of about 20 girls began playing informally this summer at Deering Oaks park and continues to play indoors this fall.
“We’re very raw,” Connolly said, “but we have a teacher supervising intrasquad scrimmages. There’s clearly interest.”
Kelly Libby, now entering his third year as the Portland High softball coach, said the field at Payson Park will never be on a par with Hadlock, but significant upgrades are in the works.
“It’s been obvious that the girls field wasn’t up to even what I thought was a safety standard, let alone equal facilities,” he said. “You’ve got two girls teams and all the parents and fans and there’s one (portable toilet). If a lightning storm came up, there would be no place to go, no shelter.”
Construction of storage space, enclosed dugouts, concession and bathroom facilities along with new lighting, bleachers and a scoreboard are planned for Payson, where both Portland and Deering will play their softball games and Portland will practice.
“You’ll see some of those implemented by spring,” Craig said. “It is a process.”
Libby, whose softball team doubled its victory total from his first season (one) to his second and saw participation rise from 20 to 22 girls, welcomes the upgrades. “We’re excited about that,” he said. “It’s been a long time coming.”
As one who benefited from the changes required by Title IX, Craig reflected on her high school playing days in Rhode Island, her softball career at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish and her current stature as one of six female athletic administrators in Maine high schools.
“It is kind of neat,” she said. “Girls are playing harder, faster and stronger and it’s because of the opportunities we’ve created to ensure the playing field is equal.”
Gone, too, is her initial fear of the OCR audit resulting in reduced opportunities for boys.
“This wasn’t about taking away from athletes,” Craig said. “What it’s done is elevated all of our programs.”
Glenn Jordan can be contacted at 791-6425 or at: