Keaton Gwinn

Mormon Trail senior Keaton Gwinn leaves the floor and hugs assistant coach Jason Newton and head coach Aaron Parmer following their heartbreaking loss to end the Saints basketball season in substate bracket play on Feb. 23. The Mormon Trail Saints were looking to make the school from the Bluegrass Conference in southern Iowa's first trip to the state tournament for the boys basketball team until their meet up with reigning back-to-back Class 1A state champions, private school Grandview Christian out of Des Moines. Grandview Christian went on to win the Iowa High School boys' Class 1A state championship for the third year in a row. Photo by Jen Reed

Two weeks ago I put my heart and soul into a story titled “Should Iowa be forced to level the playing field for small public schools versus private schools?” When I completed that story I was proud of the final product. I hoped anyone that read it would stand just one moment in the shoes of a small town public school athlete and see the obstacles they are faced with the present Iowa High School Athletic Association’s classification system.

I didn’t view this story as a controversial subject many others may possibly try to avoid. I saw this as an opportunity to point out how the current system is viewed from a small town public school perspective.

Nothing could have prepared me for how far this story would travel. You could say it went viral with over 40,000 story views within the first week it was uploaded on our web page. The story has circulated Facebook not only from all around the state of Iowa, but also reaching many other states as well.

With the Iowa High School boys’ state basketball tournament underway the same day this story went live, it only fueled the fire for many that felt the current system is flawed. It was easy to understand how small town public schools would feel robbed of a post-season opportunity when seeing five of the eight Class 1A-qualifying teams were private schools. Well, those that were able to view the boys’ state tournament games that is, but that’s another story for another day.

Through the help of social media such as Facebook and Twitter, I was able to see firsthand so many of the story shares as well as comments made. Then add in every high school principal, superintendent, coach, athletic director, parent, student-athlete and even sports radio stations, that personally reached out to me, and trust me there were dozens, and I knew how a majority of my readers felt.

Parents all across the state have felt the same heartache as Mormon Trail Saints players and parents recently did following their loss to Grandview Christian. School administration members and coaches have been infuriated for many years over the IHSAA not making changes to the athletic classes that allow private schools with advantages to play against their small town public schools. This holds true in not only basketball, but also many other sports including football, wrestling and more.

With comments such as “they should take their loss and move on”, the Saints parents and members of this year’s basketball team aren’t asking for a redo. They are not asking to take a title away from the Grandview Christian Thunder team that ended their road to state, then went on to win their third consecutive state championship in Class 1A.

They simply want to see the current system changed.  They are asking those within the position at the IHSAA to do better for the sake of our small town public schools for future athletes.

The subject of public versus private schools in athletics is not a new one. In fact with the most recent SF372 bill gaining a lot of exposure in Iowa with its goal to use public funds for private and home schooling education, this debate runs much deeper than athletics.

I however, want to dive deeper into only the athletics portion of this topic. Not because I believe athletics is of greater importance than a high school education. I don’t. Being a former high school athlete myself and raising my daughters with a strong presence to athletics, I value what can be learned when being a member of a team past any win or lose situation.

I believe sports can teach you something much deeper than you can learn in any classroom. You can learn how to lose with dignity and pride and maybe more importantly than that, how to win with grace and gratitude.

In my previous story I touched briefly on losses suffered by both the Mormon Trail School and Seymour Community Schools to private schools hailing from much larger cities. Both of these schools compete in the southern Iowa portion of the state where some of the lowest poverty levels remain and are members of the Bluegrass Conference.

While there are small schools located all across the State of Iowa, the Bluegrass Conference holds nine out of 26 of the smallest public schools in Iowa. Three of those hold the number one, number three and number four lowest BEDS school enrollments in the state for this current year.

These small schools struggle at times to have enough players to even make up their own school team as those from a small town know all too well, there just isn’t a large pool of people to pull from. Public schools do not discriminate and take in every student they can, yet their numbers still suffer when the town population itself is small.

When the March 6, 2017, EF2 tornado hit the Seymour Community School District, immediate talk began of believing that was the end of this small public school. Many assumed the tragedy would cause the school to close. The town and school were resilient however, and even without a gymnasium of their own, their athletics continued on.

Sadly, for three other school districts within the Bluegrass Conference, their schools were forced to close in the last 15 years. The conference lost Fox Valley, Russell and another Wayne County school, Lineville-Clio, changing up the dynamics for the Bluegrass.

With these small town public schools closing, three private schools hailing from the much larger cities of Ankeny and Des Moines joined the Bluegrass Conference. While two of those schools seemed to be of a more level playing field, Grandview Christian consistently remained on top in boys’ basketball within the Bluegrass with Ankeny Christian not far behind.

That is why this remains such a difficult situation to fix. How can you make a fair playing field for public schools and private schools alike?

Personally I believe no matter how things could be changed, there isn’t an across the board solution that makes everyone happy. I do however believe there are options that can help our small town public schools. I do not believe our small town public schools should suffer and lose out on opportunities for post-season success in athletics.

When a member from the IHSAA Classification Committee reached out to me after reading my story, he asked me what my own ideas were regarding a change. He informed me the story I had written, “struck a chord” with him.

I originally believed a multiplier system was the way to go. Alabama being the first state to implement this system, it seemed to work for other states that followed suit.

However I was informed roughly five years ago, the IHSAA looked into a 1.65 multiplier and at that time only two private schools would have been affected. That doesn’t solve the problems many of us are upset with today.

This led me to ask the question, why can’t we follow suit with the classifications used in high school football? The Class A division was added in below Class 1A to allow smaller school enrollment numbers to have the ability to play 8-man football with other small schools. It also allowed schools that qualified for Class A to play up if they asked to do so.

Now look back from 2011-2017, in Class 1A football you will see six out of seven schools that won the state championships were private schools. Private schools however make up less than 20 percent of the schools competing in Class 1A. Smaller public schools are still fighting the battle against private schools within Class 1A.

As you look at the numbers in each class for the high school boys basketball divisions in Iowa there are 48 teams in Class 4A, 64 teams in Class 3A, 96 teams in Class 2A and an astonishing 147 teams in Class 1A. Those numbers already paint the picture it isn’t a level playing field for smaller schools.

Larger schools in Class 4A have the ability to see post-season success three times more than any team in Class 1A. Are we already setting up our small public schools for failure with this system? I believe so.

The Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union currently has separation into five classes. With Iowa being the only state to separate boys and girls high school athletic unions, many believe the boys association should follow suit with the IGHSAU. With Marquette Catholic being the only private school in Class 1A to advance to the girls’ state basketball tournament, one could ask if the additional class for the girls made the difference.

Next I take a look at the system Texas currently has in place. They split competing associations with public schools and private schools in their own divisions. If Iowa wasn’t looking for a complicated process, this seems like an easy solution.

Whether it was immediately put in place changing up all conferences throughout the athletic school year, or simply placed for post-season tournaments, it could make for a level playing field in every sport. Private schools would only match up against private schools for their chance of a state title, allowing public schools to compete against themselves for the same opportunity to be a state champion.

Another system that looks like a viable option is immediately moving every private school up one classification automatically. That would eliminate every private school completely from the smallest classification of competition.

The State of Arkansas uses a similar system with every non-public school with less than 80 enrolled students moving up one classification. If Iowa were to implement the same as Arkansas, 21 private schools would have remained where they currently are in Class 1A.

When you view the boys’ basketball post-season statistics, you can’t ignore the facts before you. There were 147 total teams divided into 16 districts. Making up those 147 teams were 23 private schools and the remaining 124 were public schools.

There are only 15.6 percent private schools competing in the Class 1A boys’ districts, yet the private schools that qualified for the state tournament were made up of an incredibly high 62.5 percent. Public schools make up the much larger 84.4 percent of Class 1A, yet only seen 37.5 percent qualify for state.

With the reigning Class 1A Champions Grandview Christian standing out now due to their three-peat success, no one denies the athletic talent their starters and first three off the bench showcased. It does however point out the obvious with the current open border policy for gaining new athletes to a team with no penalties, they shouldn’t be allowed to continue playing in Class 1A post-season brackets.

They are no longer in the Bluegrass Conference, but still managed to ruin chances for one of the conference’s own that was looking at a true spot at state this season. This team could have easily matched up against any team in Class 2A and 3A as they played 11 games this season against higher-classed teams and walked away with 10 victories.

With Grandview Christian standing in the spotlight, many wonder how this high school basketball team turned into the Chicago Bulls of the 90s. This is however, still Iowa high school athletics and not the NBA. The IHSAA should want a level playing field for all schools.

The same holds true possibly for private Roman Catholic school Don Bosco in northeast Iowa. Don Bosco led all other teams in Class 1A in total team points and saw 10 wrestlers reach the podium at the IAHSAA State Tournament.

This private school gymnasium holds many state banners with locals noticing new athletes arriving quite often that help achieve more state success in athletics for the private school. Being in a small town, are they really an exception to the big city, private school rule or are they pulling in athletes from the larger cities of Waterloo and Cedar Falls that are under 25 minutes driving distance to the small town of Gilbertville.

The list could continue on with several private schools seeing success in recent years in athletics in all classes. While many believe Iowa will never change, especially with the announcement of the newest Executive Director of the IHSAA coming from a private school background, at least I have people talking.

My parents have long told me if I don’t fight for my own children, no one else will.  These sentiments remain true in this situation. No one else will look out for our small town public schools, students and athletes if we don’t.

While I don’t have a horse in the race at any school within the Bluegrass Conference now, my feelings will always remain the same on this controversial subject. I am just one small town girl that would like to see a system I believe is broken, be fixed. If you feel the same, maybe it’s time to contact members of the IHSAA and voice your concerns just the same.

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