Swimming is one of three Portland high school sports that could have a co-op team next year. Above, Deering’s Owen McLaughlin, far lane, pulls ahead in the 200 yard freestyle at the Class A boy swimming state championship at Bowdoin College in February. Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald

PORTLAND — To ensure student golfers, swimmers and indoor track enthusiasts can compete at the high school level even if their school can’t field a team, the Portland Board of Education is considering forming cooperative teams for those sports.

Superintendent Xavier Botana, Assistant Superintendent Aaron Townsend, Portland Athletic Director Rob O’Leary and Deering Athletic Director Michael Daly made the recommendation for co-op teams to the board last week. The teams mostly likely would be made by consolidating the Deering and Portland programs, although the district could also partner with other public or private schools. If the board agrees, the district’s athletic department will ask the Maine Principals’ Association for its approval.

The school board will take a preliminary vote on the recommendation on Tuesday, May 19, with a final vote June 2. The board must approve the request in order for the MPA to consider it. If the board opts for co-op teams and the MPA’s gives its approval, those teams would be allowed for the 2020-2021 school year, according to Mike Burnham, the executive director of MPA’s  interscholastic division.

Golf, swimming and track all have seen a drop in participation and are in “immediate need” of a cooperative approach, Daly said. In the future, other teams might have to go that route, including baseball, softball and boys tennis at Deering, football at both Portland and Deering and boys volleyball and esports, two new sports the MPA is allowing schools to offer.

The MPA allows schools to form cooperative teams to “provide students with the opportunity to participate in certain sports” when the individual schools can’t offer those sports on their own, O’Leary said.

Board of Education Chairman Roberto Rodriguez said athletic participation has been fairly consistent at the high schools over the last decade, but the popularity of specific sports has ebbed and flowed.  In 2010, for example, about 25% of students at Portland and Deering participated in athletics. This year that figure ranged from 29% to 21% depending on the season.

Golf participation at Deering has dwindled in recent years, from 21 participants in the 2017-2018 school year to just two this year. Participation at Portland has been stronger, with squads of at least 21 golfers in seven of the last eight years.

Just 94 athletes are expected to be part of the Deering and Portland track programs next school year. From 2003 to 2010, it was not uncommon for more than 100 students to be on the team at Deering alone. Since 2003, the Deering team has ranged from a high of 120 athletes in 2008-2009 to a low of 27  in 2017-2018. The Portland team has ranged from 88 members in 2003-2004 to 30 in 2015-2016.

The number of swimmers at the two schools also has fluctuated over the years and is trending downward. Back in 2003-2004 there were close to 100 swimmers, but only 54 between the two schools this year, with just 14 at Deering, which historically has seen more swimmers. The athletic departments projects 37 swimmers between the two schools next year.

Daly said the school district needs to work better with youth sports programs to help keep athletic participation rates up in individual sports once those athletes get to high school.

Although the goal of the co-op teams initiative is to ensure students can participate in the sport of their choice rather than about cutting costs, creating one golf team could save the district close to $3,500, while combining the track programs could yield a savings of $20,400 and combining the swim programs could yield a $23,000 savings according to the presentation from Botana, Daly and O’Leary.

Board member Marnie Morrione said combining programs would not be her first choice, but it could be prudent given the district’s financial situation. Botana has said the district is facing $1 million loss related to the coronavirus pandemic, stemming from increased costs from ensuring students had access to technology at home for distance learning and from lost revenue from Medicaid and the school nutrition program.

“I am in favor because we’ve got to find and area for cost-saving,” Morrione said.

This would be the first time the board has weighed in on cooperative teams. The formation of the current co-op teams – the Deering/Portland boys and girls ice hockey teams in 2011, Deering/Portland field hockey team in 2019, Deering/Portland/Cheverus boys and girls nordic ski programs and the Portland/South Portland wrestling team in 2018 – resulted from the recommendations of the athletic directors and the superintendent and didn’t need board approval at that time. The MPA now requires school board approval before making its ruling.

Board member Sarah Thompson said she has some trepidation about combining sports teams without more feedback from the booster groups, students and parents.

“While I trust our athletic directors and our professionals, at the same time I don’t want to be part of the demise of particular long-standing sports in the city of Portland,” she said.

“I want there to be a conversation broader than ourselves,” she added, “because you are going to hit a lot of hot buttons with this.”

Board member Anna Trevorrow doesn’t see it the same way.

“I see it as an avenue for flexibility when we don’t have the participation in a school that we need,” she said.

“I am supportive of the general direction that this is heading. I appreciate the diligence to make sure any kind who wants to pay has a place to do so,” board member Adam Burk said.

If Portland’s cooperative teams form, they will join a small roster of similar programs.

According to the Maine Principals’ Association, there are no cooperative teams in golf in the state and only two cooperative teams in track (St. Dominic/Lisbon/Winthrop and Mattanawcook/Penobscot Valley). Cooperative swim teams are generally rare as well, with only one team in Class A ( Gardiner/Hall-Dale) and four in Class B (Waterville/Winslow, Old Town/Orono, Caribou/Fort Fairfield and Boothbay/Wiscasset).

 

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