Girls’ soccer and lacrosse in Ottawa Hills won a small victory on Tuesday evening when the Ottawa Hills Board of Education agreed to sponsor the teams. But the larger battle over potential varsity status was left unanswered.
Parents have fought the district for years to make the teams either club or varsity sports to bring the district into compliance with federal law, and that fight is ongoing. But the soccer team needed at least board sponsorship to continue into the postseason; Tuesday's unanimous approval of team sponsorship was an attempt to allow the girls to continue to play while discussions of the dispute are resolved. Club teams sponsored by districts can compete against varsity squads.
Parents of the soccer team, which funds itself, said they were happy with the board's action but will continue with a push for a more formalized school relationship.
Meanwhile, the conflict has drawn the attention of national advocates for gender equality in sports.
"We were looking for a commitment," said Paul Lyon, president of Ottawa Hills Girls Club Soccer. "That's what we got."
The vote followed heated remarks by parents who feel the board is delaying a final decision on the teams. Parents said before the meeting that they are considering legal action over what they say are violations of Title IX, a federal law passed in 1972 prohibiting gender discrimination in any school program, including team athletics, that receives federal financial assistance.
The school district offers 16 sports — 9 for boys, 7 for girls, under its varsity athletic program.
The Women's Sports Foundation, a nonprofit group founded by Billie Jean King that advocates for women in sports, entered the fray Tuesday, with the foundation's senior director of advocacy, Nancy Hogshead-Makar, writing the board of education a letter advising it that there should be no dispute and that failure to add both girls' lacrosse and soccer would be a violation of federal — and probably state — law.
Ms. Hogshead-Makar, who as an Olympic swimmer won three gold medals in 1984, said Ottawa Hills probably would lose in court if it were sued, and legal fees probably would cost more than adding the sports.
"The law is very clear in this instance," she said in a phone interview. "There's really nothing to argue about."
Ottawa Hills High School graduate Christine Brennan, a sports columnist for USA Today, put parents in touch with Ms. Hogshead-Makar. Ms. Brennan, who still owns a home in the village and remains involved in the community, said she was troubled that girls still had to fight to compete athletically.
"Title IX didn't show up 40 days ago, or 40 weeks ago. It was signed into law by the President of the United States 40 years ago," Ms. Brennan said. "How is it possible that schools are still not in compliance with that law?"
A compliance review of the district by a committee of residents, parents, and school officials who consulted with Title IX experts at Bowling Green State University showed that girls made up 48 percent of the school's enrollment during the 2009-10 school year and 46 percent the next year, but they made up only 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. School board members will hold a special board meeting on Oct. 4 to discuss possible compliance solutions, and some said at the start of the meeting they wanted to follow the process and not create half-measures.
A decision on that date would have given the girls' soccer team only a day to possibly enter the state postseason. The club said they would continue to cover all costs to play. Parents and players expressed their frustrations with the board during public comment, arguing that the board has delayed addressing Title IX compliance for years.
"I've never seen a school district kick the can down the road as many times as you have," parent Ginger Guilliod said.
Freshman Brooklyn Burel told board members that her team was gaining the district good publicity, and district support would only improve its public profile.
"I think it would be in the school's benefit to make us varsity," she said.
The board ultimately agreed to the sponsorship, although with no public explanation during the meeting as to why.
"This does not end the process," board President Gary Wilson said. "It frankly begins the process."
Nearly all of the board's discussion before the vote over sponsoring the girls' soccer team happened behind closed doors, under the cover of an executive session declared to be about pending or imminent court action. The board's conversation, which was clearly audible in a hallway outside the meeting room, veered many times away from Title IX, with comments about how the disputes with parents could affect an upcoming levy, how other teams could view the sponsorship as unfair, and other mechanics of sponsorship of the soccer and lacrosse teams.
The resolution that board members approved for team sponsorship even appeared to be written during the closed session by Superintendent Kevin Miller. Board members could be heard admitting in the closed session that the sponsorship in no way resolves their Title IX dispute.
Mr. Wilson said after the meeting he had no knowledge of when Mr. Miller wrote the resolution, even though he sat next to Mr. Miller as he wrote and read aloud during the executive session.
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