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Parents of Ottawa Hills Local Schools students who say they have fought a half-dozen years for high school girls' lacrosse and soccer to become either club or varsity sports will have to wait a little longer.
School officials said Thursday that before making a final decision they wanted to fully digest a freshly prepared committee report that seeks to determine whether the school is in compliance with federal law, and they promised to have some type of decision in 30 days.
About 20 parents turned out at a special meeting to petition that the sports be considered for varsity-level status, a request they said they have made before.
Most of those who spoke praised soccer.
"You've got girls in every class interested in soccer," said Gene Richard, whose two daughters play soccer in the school system: a freshman and a fifth-grader. "I encourage you … to do what's best for the kids."
Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972, prohibits gender discrimination in any school program that receives federal financial assistance, including team athletics. The National Women's Law Center, a non-profit organization that works for gender equality, offers schools a three-pronged test to determine whether they are in compliance, said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel and director of equal opportunities in athletics for the Washington-based law center.
The three elements are ensuring the percentages of girls and boys participating in varsity or club sports is proportional; that historically the school shows it is adding athletic opportunities, and that the district shows it is satisfying a reported level of interest in an athletic program by students.
"You always want to make sure you are offering the same levels of participation," she said. "If there are sports that girls want to play, the district has to meet that level of interest. It sounds like the parents in this case have a strong argument."
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The report seemed to be in agreement with that assessment.
After the meeting's public-comment period, which lasted about 20 minutes, board members pulled out the compliance review -- researched by a committee of village residents, parents, and school officials who consulted with Title IX experts at Bowling Green State University and compiled by Superintendent Kevin Miller -- and went through a summary version of the 175-page report.
The school district offers 16 sports under its varsity athletic program -- nine for boys, seven for girls. The district has no club sports.
According to figures in the report, girls made up 48 percent of the school's enrollment during the 2009-10 school year and 46 percent the next year, but they only made up 39 and 37 percent of the school's sports participation rates in those years.
To be in compliance, those percentages would require that the school add between 27 and 54 slots for girls' athletics, Mr. Miller said. He also said the school district was not in compliance with a continued-expansion element; the last girls' varsity sport added was softball during the late 1970s.
The report concluded that the school district has not addressed female students' interest in playing varsity soccer, lacrosse, and even bowling, and it recommended the school district add at least one of those sports to its varsity roster.
"Have we accommodated the athletic interest that is before us? The answer is no," Mr. Miller said. "It is incumbent upon us to do something about it."
Board members said their biggest hurdle is a financial one -- creating club and varsity sports under the law requires funding commitments, including paying for uniforms and equipment, and travel expenses.
"We have financial constraints the board has been looking at for a long time," board president Gary Wilson said. "We have a hard decision to make, and we will make it."
Varsity sports are schools' principal athletic teams for schools, receiving financial support, equipment, and facilities from the district and participating in interscholastic athletic conferences. Club sports are not as fully funded by school districts and often must find their own competitors, but they can be recognized by districts in other ways, such as varsity lettering.
In 2011, the district cut spending by $1 million to close a deficit in its $13 million general-fund budget.
Mr. Richard's wife, Yolanda Hernandez, pointed out that although dance and cheerleading are no longer recognized as varsity sports at Ottawa Hills, the school pays for coaches to run the programs, and students get varsity letters.
"It's hard all around [financially] -- I understand that -- but it's not fair," she said.
Ottawa Hills Athletic Director Tim Erickson declined to comment, referring all questions to Mr. Miller.
Ginger Guilliod, the mother of an Ottawa Hills High School junior who plays soccer, asked if the board would at minimum consider making girls' soccer a club sport, because parents already support the program financially. She said after the meeting that parents had been fighting to bring the girls' sports up to club or varsity level for a long time so that their daughters could have soccer-playing opportunities beyond high school. She said she was frustrated that the school was just now reviewing a report.
"We have been fighting this for five or six years," she said. "The parents are very supportive of this program. We are out there fighting for this every day."
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