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Gross: ESD not likely to expand

While it remains for an official vote to be taken on the issue, Mitchell Activities Director Geoff Gross told the Mitchell Board of Education on Monday that an expansion of the Eastern South Dakota Athletic Conference is unlikely, with or without Mitchell's vote.

Gross explained that the public school districts of Harrisburg, Rapid City (Central and Stevens) and Sturgis have applied for membership in the ESD conference.

The request is the result of a proposed Sioux Falls Metro Conference that will leave the Rapid City schools looking for a new league, explained Superintendent Joe Graves.

"We in Mitchell have tried to be as open-minded as anybody about the conference expansion," Gross said.

But Gross said adding the larger western schools creates numerous problems, and he recommended against expanding the 83-year-old ESD conference from eight schools to 12 schools "at this time."

The board unanimously supported that recommendation. ESD conference members will vote on the proposed change in the next few weeks, Gross said.

While a larger conference would give some scheduling clout in a playoff system that currently favors Sioux Falls schools, Gross said the expansion might create serious imbalances in the league's structure that could not be easily rectified, including the eventual split of the conference into two divisions.

"It's hard enough to win an eight-team conference championship; add 12 to the mix, especially when you're adding Rapid City Schools to the mix -- with 1,800 students for Stevens and 2,400 students for Rapid City Central -- it would be very difficult," he said.

Mitchell currently plays western schools, Gross told the board, so additional time and travel expenses, while factors, would not be the major concerns for Mitchell that they would be for other districts.

An expansion, however, would create numerous scheduling problems, and the current single round robin in football and double round robin formats in basketball and volleyball "would be impossible to maintain," he said.

For a league expansion to occur, six of the eight schools in the conference would have to vote in favor of that change. Brandon Valley and Huron are against the change, Gross said, and the addition of Mitchell's "no" vote means that the ESD will maintain the status quo in 2011-12. Gross said this may be only the first of several such applications for expansion.

In his informational memo to the school board, Gross said that while a 12-school conference encompassing more AA schools would give the ESD more power in the state, the larger western schools would likely dominate in sports such as tennis, golf, cross country, and track and field.

Gross called a recent meeting on the issue, "cordial, but contentious."

One activities director, he said, "told us we could just take all of our conference championships and ship them out West, which is probably pretty true, because that's where the power of those events are right now."

Gross said that while the sentiments are strongly in favor of remaining an eight-school conference, Harrisburg's application for membership might be considered separately.

The rapidly growing district is now in Class AA for football and in Class A for other sports. The school graduated 70 seniors this year but it has a kindergarten class of 240 students.

"In two to four years they will be forced to move up," Gross said. He believes the district's application is simply a bid to become part of a well-respected conference.