Sports: Denied bond issue foils perfect solution for Mesa County School District 51

No. 2, Justin Truillo RB for GJHS on a long run past No. 35, Dominic Martinez from Palmer HS in the first half

It seemed like the perfect solution for Mesa County School District 51.

Had Referred Measure 3A and 3B passed in last Tuesday’s election, two new high schools would have been built in the Appleton and Orchard Mesa areas. An athletic complex would have been built at one of the new high schools.

All were scheduled to be ready for occupancy in August 2010.

The new athletic complex, which would have included a football stadium and track, would have helped with scheduling conflicts at Stocker Stadium.

Most importantly, two new high schools would have eased overcrowding at the four current high schools.

But with Wednesday morning came the news that neither measure passed.

Now what?

Grand Junction, Fruita Monument and Central high schools will remain at the Class 5A level in athletics.

The enrollment for Class 5A schools in football is 1,641 students and above. Last October’s official enrollment count had Fruita Monument at 1,778 students, Central at 1,705 and Grand Junction at 1,699.

Had the bond issues passed, the projected enrollment of all six Grand Valley high schools for the fall of 2010 would have been between 900 and 1,150 students, according to school district figures.

That would have put all six in the 3A classification in football and the 4A classification in all other sports, as is the case currently with Palisade High School.

Central, Fruita Monument and Grand Junction have struggled to compete in most sports since moving to Class 5A.

There hasn’t been a Class 5A state championship team from District 51 since Grand Junction won the 2005 baseball title.

This fall was a perfect example. The two football teams to make the 5A playoffs, Central and Fruita Monument, both were handed convincing losses in the first round.

In boys tennis, no player reached the final day at the state tournament. In volleyball, no team advanced out of district tournaments.

There were similar situations in cross country (no top-20 state finishers, only one team qualifier), softball (no team reached the final eight) and boys soccer (no teams advanced past the first round).

But the problem isn’t simply enrollment. Under 5A playoff guidelines, most teams qualify for postseason play. So why are the valley schools unable to compete against Front Range teams? 

“I think we owe it to our kids to give them every opportunity to give them success,” Fruita Monument Athletic Director Pat Noland said. “We are small 5A schools that are just over the (enrollment) limit and that makes a difference when you are going against schools with 2,500 to 3,000 kids to choose from.”

With six schools in the valley, it would have significantly cut down on travel costs for athletic teams.

Without the two new schools, the three existing 5A schools will have to continue to fight budget issues with the travel required to be a 5A school.

The district was hoping to have all six schools in the same conference. With Montrose and Durango, an eight-team conference would create more opportunities to play on the Western Slope, cutting down the need to travel to fill schedules.

This football season, the three District 51 Class 5A schools played five nonconference games against Front Range schools. Central and Grand Junction each traveled across the mountains twice, Fruita Monument once.

Palisade, a 3A school in football, had two nonconference games against non-Western Slope schools, traveling once, to Pueblo County.

“It would have saved a ton of money travel-wise,” District 51 Athletic Director Paul Cain said.

“If we had two (more) schools we would have fewer students (in each school) and wouldn’t have the necessity of finding 5A opponents,”  Noland said. “There are multiple costs that go with travel, such as gas and overnight costs.”

As it is, there are a few options for the school district to deal with its overcrowding.

One option being weighed by the District 51 school board is year-round classes.

Students would be required to go three quarters of the year, whether that is the traditional schedule or a modified schedule, such as spring, summer and fall.

“That would be demanding,” Cain said, not only on the continual use of facilities but also on figuring out schedules for athletes.

Colorado High School Activities Association regulations do not require an athlete to be in session during an athletic season if the school is on a year-round program. The student must be academically eligible based on their grades from the previous term.

Students who would traditionally have summers off might have to figure out how to balance a school schedule during the summer with the opportunity to attend athletic camps or play on summer teams.

The more immediate issue might be how competitive the local 5A teams can be at the state level.

“We’re a big school in a small town,” said Fruita Monument football coach Bill Moore, whose team lost 42-7 to Columbine in the first round of the state playoffs. “The kids here have got to realize what they’re up against.

“I have one kid on varsity that’s more than 240 pounds. Columbine had 16. They suspended eight kids (for last weekend’s game against Arvada West for disciplinary reasons) and still won 28-7.”

Fruita Monument’s lack of player size compared to Front Range schools is not isolated.

“It’s valley-wide,” Moore said. “I know that 5A football on the Front Range is different than 5A football on the Western Slope.

“Nine out of 10 teams that win the state championship are bigger, stronger, faster,” he said.

Moore has no answers for a quick fix.

“There’s no excuse here,” he said, “but there’s no miracle. There’s no miracle offense there’s no miracle defense. It just takes a lot more offseason effort to compete. It’s not just a coaching commitment or a player commitment; it’s a family commitment.”

In the end, Moore may have hit upon a reality.

“I think we’ll still be able to compete,” he said, “just not for state championships.”


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