Grant Lucas

Club sports most affected by new Bend-La Pine Schools plan

• Archery

• Bowling

• Clay target

• Cross-country skiing

• Equestrian

• Lacrosse

• Rugby

• Ultimate Frisbee

• Water polo

Source: Provided by district athletic director Sal Cassaro

Bend-La Pine Schools could no longer sit on the fence. The school district had to choose a side when it came to supporting club sports: all in or all out.

Last summer, the district made its choice.

Beginning next school year, most club sports and activities — those not sanctioned by the Oregon School Activities Association — will be operating independent of Bend-La Pine Schools. Those sports include archery, bowling, clay target, equestrian, lacrosse, rugby, ultimate Frisbee, water polo and cross-country skiing. Alpine skiing, according to Sal Cassaro, the school district’s athletic director, has had close ties with the school district for more than 30 years. Cassaro recently recalled speaking with school superintendent Shay Mikalson, who, based on that long relationship, expressed a desire to treat alpine skiing like an OSAA-sanctioned activity, giving hope for the other club sports to perhaps one day earn the same district recognition.

Team uniforms for club sports will still feature school names and colors. Facilities will still be accessible, albeit at a slightly higher cost. But in terms of district involvement, those activities will be on their own.

“First and foremost, the first thing we thought of was, ‘How do we continue to support our student-athletes in all of our club sports and activities?’” said Cassaro, recounting the district’s first steps toward developing this plan nearly two years ago.

“The second thing was HR (human resources) came in and said we have some changes; we have to comply. So the nature of the work over the next year and a half was how we comply with the laws and how do we also maintain support. We think we came up with a pretty good solution. This didn’t happen in a vacuum. We called the (Willamette) Valley, we called local areas, we really turned over every rock and stone we could before we pulled the trigger on this one.”

Club sports currently operate fairly independent of the school district, doing their own fundraising to pay for coaching staff, equipment, transportation, hotels and referee fees, among other expenses. However, many of the club sports use district-owned bank accounts to house their finances. Starting next school year, those club programs will have to set up their own accounts. This year is one of transition, Cassaro said, as the clubs establish their own accounts while spending the money left in the district-owned accounts.

One reason the district “created this new organizational structure,” as Cassaro put it, involved pay discrepancy among coaches within the same sport. One coach performing duties similar to another but paid much less, Cassaro pointed out, could result in a “serious lawsuit” against the school district as money used to pay coaches comes from district-owned accounts.

“We were half in and we were half out with club sports, meaning we controlled a lot of it but we gave them a lot of freedom,” Cassaro explained. “We would allow them to fundraise and use our accounts, so they were putting money in our accounts and paying their coaches. What our legal team told us was that kind of makes us responsible for making sure there’s equity for employment and job duties.”

Cassaro said he believes the district exercised due diligence before approving change. As the district explored the possibility of implementing this plan, Cassaro contacted colleagues in Portland and Eugene and stayed close to home by getting in touch with the Redmond School District, which currently operates independent of club sports.

“We’re not late to the party, but we’re certainly not early at all,” Cassaro said. “We did our research … and what our legal team advised was either you have to be all in and control everything when it comes to club sports and activities — I mean ALL IN; you’re doing the hiring, you’re doing the firing, you’re setting salaries — or you’ve got to distance and say (to the club sports) you have your own governing guidelines like an OSAA-like governance.”

Cassaro said that, after considering the resources required to completely oversee the club sports, the district opted to go all out. If all in on club sports, he said, the school district would head up all hiring, and it would control all of the programs’ spending, similar to an OSAA-sanctioned sport. Additionally, the district would set a pay scale for coaches.

Last summer, Cassaro said, the school district finalized its plan for club sports. As a result, club teams beginning with the 2018-19 school year will be required to pay $100 per month during their respective seasons for facility maintenance and supplies. Before, according to Anne Birky, the Bend-La Pine Schools facilities support supervisor, those facilities were made available to club teams at no cost. Also, club sports will have second priority for facility use, whereas they currently share top priority with OSAA-sanctioned sports. Athlete participation fees, as they have always been, will be determined by the individual club activities.

Initially, Cassaro said, the plan was unpopular among the club programs. Stress was high because “inaccurate information got leaked and all people probably heard was, ‘Bend-La Pine’s distancing themselves,’ which really wasn’t our intent. We didn’t wake up one day and go, ‘We’ve really got to take a different direction.’ It really was driven by human resources issues. But once good information got out, and I’ve met with a few of these sports and club head coaches, they’re like, ‘This is the best thing that ever happened.’”

Indeed, said Jeff Melville, general manager of Summit High boys lacrosse, a club program.

“We’re not only fine with it,” Melville said, “but we will thrive in this new environment.”

Melville, who is also executive director of Thunderstruck Lacrosse Association, which promotes the development of the sport and its players in Central Oregon, recalled a conversation he had with a club sport team manager, whose response to the district’s plan was to form a committee and push back.

“My thought was, you know what? We absolutely don’t need to push back,” Melville said. “It is what it is. This didn’t just happen. There was a lot of thought that was put into this, and we need to maintain the respect we have earned by not making a big deal out of it but by making the most out of it.”

This freedom, Melville said, will allow club programs to have better control over their funds while having easier access to that money for club operation. Melville said the school district has rules in place that limit how and for what clubs currently spend their money, and most expenditures require a go-ahead from a school district employee.

Initially, according to Mountain View High athletic director Dave Hood, several club coaches expressed concern that their programs would lose access and their connection to the school. As more details emerged, however, Hood said those coaches began to understand that this freedom from the schools could benefit their programs.

“Being free from some of the bureaucracy allows more control within individual programs while still being connected to the interscholastic aspect of the sport,” said Hood.

“Club sports were pretty close to operating outside the buildings in our current model,” said Bend High athletic director Dave Williams. “These programs will continue to be connected to each individual school through the utilization of our facilities, using the school name, colors, and logos, and having access to booster clubs if they so desire. Freeing them up from the district will allow them increased control in how they operate.”

Others, though, are still not pleased with the change.

Ryan Duffy, the Mountain View boys water polo coach, said he is more concerned than excited about the change, adding that having direct support from the district “helps validate the program more.” For example, Duffy said, he currently receives grade checks from the high school to determine if athletes are academically eligible to play. Under the new system, he will be charged with determining eligibility himself. He also said a longer transition period, rather than one year, would have been helpful for club sports to adapt.

“I don’t view too many positives from it,” Duffy said of the new plan. “I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer about it. I just feel the more involved the school and district are, the more our work has been appreciated. Seeing what we’ve given to our community — well-rounded athletes and involved high school children — that type of environment, I fear, can become a contaminated system where one of these club sports that doesn’t follow the rules suddenly … I don’t know where the recourse would go from there.”

That said, Duffy went on, there are glimmers of hope. All water polo programs in the Bend-La Pine district, for example, will have to operate under the same academic and sport guidelines. As Duffy understands it, the job responsibilities of water polo coaches in the district vary from program to program. Also, the Mountain View coach said, players will be able to purchase liability insurance coverage through their club sports. Athletes participating in OSAA-sanctioned sports will continue to have access to such insurance through their respective schools. Duffy said he was unsure if his water polo club club is currently covered.

Chris Perret, who said he represents a group of water polo parents in Bend, expressed the group’s dismay that the district would no longer be supporting club sports. Perret wrote in an email to The Bulletin that the parents were not contacted by the school district as it was developing its plan, noting that the parents would have wanted some input when it came to the well-being of the athletes. Specifically, as club sports after the change will lay out their own guidelines for eligibility, Perret said the potential for ineligible athletes competing is high.

“Realistically, the concern we have is the ongoing collaboration between the coaches and the schools as it relates to the scholastic experience of the student-athletes,” Perret wrote. “In (the) past, the ADs of each school have actively supported coaches in an ongoing basis on grade checks and eligibility. I do not expect the AD commitment to change, however the process that is used may change. We do not yet have a formalized process for this to continue, which will be an area that we (as water polo parents) will likely ask for from the schools.

“At the end of the day this (water polo) is not a club sport, but an unsponsored non-OSAA high school sport. For the students it is vitally important that they get to compete while representing their school, that they are competing against and with other schools in the same bracket, and lastly, that their role as a student-athlete is supported by the coaches, schools and parents.”

Cassaro assured, however, that the change in the school district’s approach to club sports will be mutually beneficial. Because while the school district will be avoiding any potential future legal troubles by making club sports independent, that freedom will allow those activities to function under their own governance and guidelines.

“They can use our colors, because we want to support the kids, and they can use the logo,” Cassaro said. “But at the end of the day, all the stuff that we were kind of half in with you is now totally on you.”

With their independence from the district, club sports will have to set up their own accounts for their finances, which Cassaro conceded is “a major inconvenience” and is “probably the single piece of heartburn that we had as we went through this.” Other than that, however, Cassaro said the district’s support still exists.

“We’re still giving them access to our facilities,” he said. “We’re still doing everything that we’ve ever done to support them but that major thing with accounting and being clear about them being on their own.”

The school district’s change in its relationship with club sports, Melville said, was inevitable. It is an organizational structure that had already been developed throughout the state. According to Melville, the environment and respect Bend-La Pine club sports have earned, particularly in fast-growing sports such as water polo and lacrosse, should not change. In fact, he said, the freedom will only make those sports stronger.

“When you talk about building a program, there’s a lot of components to that,” Melville said, “and one of them is, are you a part of the culture of the school? Summit lacrosse, we’re in our 13th season, we’ve had the Mr. Thunder (Summit High’s contest winner who raises the most money for charity) four or five times, we’ve had the valedictorian on our team three times. When people say ‘Summit lacrosse’ at the school, we have a lot of respect. We’ve been part of the culture there, which is something we’ve worked hard to do, because when something like this happens … the reaction is, ‘This is the reality of the situation. We’ll do everything we can to keep the district happy and keep this sport going.’”

Williams, the Bend High AD, said the ties will not be as tight as with OSAA-sanctioned sports, but Mountain View AD Hood noted the relationships club sports have had with their respective schools will remain the same.

“The athletes are still students from our school,” said Hood, “and the fact that they are involved in positive extracurricular activities is very important to us.”

—Reporter: 541-383-0307, .