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Future of gymnastics in jeopardy at MHS

The 2010 state meet, which concluded Saturday, may have been the last for the Mitchell High School gymnastics team.

Two days after the meet came to an end, gymnasts and their parents and coaches met with Superintendent Joe Graves to discuss the future of the MHS gymnastics program.

Graves on Tuesday presented those in attendance at a meeting with a plan to eliminate gymnastics as a school-sanctioned sport effective for the 2010-11 school year and use the funds freed up from the discontinuation of gymnastics to add competitive cheer and dance at MHS. Cheer and dance are considered two separate sports.

The plan is one that Graves and other school administrators have been looking at for about nine years, Graves said, and he thinks now is simply the right time to put into action.

"First, this is a time where we could bring in competitive cheer and dance for about the same amount of money we've been spending (on gymnastics)," Graves said. "Second, our team is at a very transitional point. Although it's going to be very tough for those students, it would have been much tougher two years ago, so we found probably the best time we're going to to make the change."

He said his plan as of Tuesday is to bring the proposal to the Mitchell school board at the board's next meeting, March 8.

Tuesday evening, Graves talked with around 30 gymnastics parents and a number of gymnasts from the varsity program as well as the MEGA gymnastics program. The meeting was the first time MHS coach Audra Rew had heard of the proposal.

"Shock is definitely the word to use," Rew said of her reaction and the parents' reaction at the meeting. "It wasn't anything we knew anything about. It just totally surprised everyone."

Since Rew and the gymnastics parents didn't know anything about the proposal until Tuesday, she said they just listened to Graves' proposal, but that some parents are going to form a committee to look into the issue. Graves said that is something he is open to.

"We'll probably hold a meeting like that later this week or next," he said. "I'd be happy to go into that committee with an open mind and see what's being proposed."

Competitive cheer and dance were sanctioned by the South Dakota High School Activities Association beginning in the 2007-08 school year. All schools in the Eastern South Dakota Conference, except Mitchell, added competitive cheer as a sanctioned sport and all but Pierre and Mitchell added competitive dance.

"We didn't have the funding at that time to add those sports," Graves said. "All other ESD schools did. As we've continued to look at activities, we're saying we're struggling to keep up the number of females we have participating in activities. In the spirit of Title IX, we keep trying to figure that out."

Adding competitive cheer and dance, along with prep show choir and boys' soccer, is on a plan the Mitchell School District has been working on for the past several years. However, due to budget cuts, before it can add more activities, the school district must cut one.

In an outline of Graves' plan to eliminate gymnastics, he explained that gymnastics is the "logical choice" to eliminate for several reasons.

"First, since we are adding what are considered by the SDHSAA girls' sports, it is logical to delete a girls' sport," the outline states. "Second, gymnastics is a relatively expensive sport. Thus, by cutting this one sport, we can add two others. Third, gymnastics as a sport in South Dakota is somewhat on the wane."

The outline goes on to explain how several of the 16 Class AA schools Mitchell typically competes with have dropped gymnastics, including Douglas, Spearfish, Sturgis and Brandon Valley. Rapid City has a shared coach and facility for Central and Stevens high schools.

Graves said there is never a good time to drop a sport, but now would be the right time for gymnastics, which is two years removed from back-to-back Class AA titles. Of the 13 gymnasts on this year's roster, eight were seventh-graders and one was an eighth-grader.

"I feel like every team has a cycle," Rew said. "Unfortunately, the school only looks at what kids are in grades nine through 12 for participation purposes. We have always had strong numbers, and now with our MEGA program, we have built a very strong younger group that's coming up.

"I feel like all teams have a time where they're lower in numbers and you have more lowerclassmen than upperclassmen and unfortunately, our cycle came now at a time when they're disbanding gymnastics."

MHS also looked at eliminating gymnastics as a school-sanctioned sport in 2002 when it added girls' soccer, but ultimately the school kept both sports. Rew said she didn't go to any of those meetings, but remembers that parents were able to do some fundraising to help keep gymnastics at the high school.

Adding competitive cheer and dance would also help keep MHS in compliance with Title IX, the federal law on sports equity for boys and girls. Mitchell is in full compliance with Title IX requirements; however, keeping boy and girl participation levels equal can be tough because of the large number of participants in football.

By eliminating one girls' sport and adding two others, MHS would be closer to equity. The average number of athletes on the 13 Class AA competitive cheer rosters in the state is around 20 and the number on competitive dance is around 16. There are an average 15 gymnasts on the 15 "AA" rosters in South Dakota.

Though Graves is proposing to add two activities while eliminating only one, he said the cost should be fairly similar. The budget for the 2009-10 gymnastics season was $25,090. The estimated budget for competitive cheer and dance is around $28,100, although that is not yet a solid number, only proposed.

The process to eliminate gymnastics and add competitive cheer and dance is a "pretty simple" one, according to Graves.

"I would take a recommendation to the (Mitchell school) board, which I intend to do at the next board meeting (March 8)," he said. "Because it's already sanctioned (by the state association), it's done. If the board approves it, we're off to the races.

"Having said that, we're hopeful that as this transitions that we may be able to get a (gymnastics) club going in Mitchell."

Should gymnastics become a club sport, it would join bowling, hockey, baseball, softball and swimming.

Rew said the MEGA club team was created as a feeder program for the high school and it's mainly for the younger gymnasts in Mitchell.

"(MEGA) was formed to feed the high school program," she said. "These girls go through (MEGA) hoping to be a Mitchell Kernel. The fun in gymnastics is high school gymnastics. This is an opportunity for kids 6 and up to compete before they get to seventh grade."

Graves said he isn't completely against keeping gymnastics as a school-sanctioned sport, but that the right option would have to present itself.

"I'm not saying there's no way (gymnastics will be kept as a school sport); that's a school board decision," Graves said. "Maybe there will be some great ideas I have not considered, and we want to listen to these."