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South Bend Tribune (Indiana)
SOUTH BEND — Word of a big decision by the South Bend Community School Corp. had barely started to spread when Washington High School athletic director Garland Hudson received a text message.
WE'RE GOING TO SCHOOL FROM 9 TO 4.
The all-caps statement on an August evening was sent by Riley High School's athletic director, Dan Kyle, who attended a school board meeting where everything he thought he knew about this school year changed. Hudson scanned the message once, twice, three times. It still didn't register. It was only 10 days from the start of classes and the school corporation had decided to make a big change at its high schools.
A school day that started and ended 30 minutes later — now running from 9a.m. to 4p.m. — suddenly loomed as part of the district's Focus 2018 plan. Hudson wondered how athletics would work.
Contracts for the fall sports season already were signed. Start times cemented. Play was scheduled to start around 4:30p.m. Some contests could be pushed to 4:45 or maybe even 5.
But given that the school day for the city's four public high schools — Adams on the east side, Clay to the north, Riley down south and Washington out west — would run until 4, Hudson knew everything that he and his fellow athletic directors had finalized for fall would be fruitless.
Instead of working season-to-season or even month-to-month, the athletic directors would operate week-to-week to make sure their schedules were in sync.
Sometimes, it has been day-to-day, or even hour-by-hour. The problems are aggravated by the school district's shortage of bus drivers, which has made the daily scramble for athletics even more hectic. Few sporting events have been outright canceled, but late starts or close calls are routine. There aren't enough drivers to get all the kids home from school, and then get the kids from school to athletic events.
Every week brings a new set of logistical challenges for athletic directors. Is there enough time to get to this school or that school on time? Will the junior varsity match have to be sliced to playing only one half or scrapped entirely? Do they have to reschedule?
"It's a big challenge," Hudson said recently while studying the week's calendar to make all the pieces to his athletics puzzle fit. "It puts a strain on us. We have to be in constant communication with other schools to say that we might not be there on time."
Earlier this season, Hudson contacted Culver Academy athletic director Louise Ericson about a weekday volleyball match scheduled to start at 6p.m. The time was key because Culver Academy was live-streaming the match. If an alum wanted to tune in from, say, New York at 6, they'd want to see their school, not a blank screen. They saw a blank screen.
The school's later dismissal meant another late bus at Washington. Drivers that double up on routes — afternoon drop-offs of students before heading back to school to transport athletic teams — rarely are ready to go before 5p.m. The Panthers' traveling party was late on the 40-mile trip to Culver. The volleyball match finally started close to 6:30, after an abbreviated warm-up.
"We rushed into it," Hudson said. "It makes everything harder to get done. It's doable, but it's tough."
Last week, a boys' tennis match between Marian High School and Clay was scheduled for 4:30p.m. Clay's bus pulled in at 5:45. A girls' soccer match between Riley and Mishawaka at Baker Park was scheduled to begin at 5. Riley's bus arrived at 5:07. Across the way at Baker Park, the tennis match between Mishawaka and Clay was set for 4:30. Clay arrived at 5:40.
Earlier this month, the Washington boys' soccer team didn't return from a weeknight game at Elkhart Central until 11p.m.
At Clay, Al Hartman staggered through a two-week stretch where every athletic event had to be rescheduled.
"That's been a problem," Hartman said. "I'm calling Mishawaka every week saying we have something scheduled for 4:30, but we can't get there until 5. We have something scheduled at 5, but can't get there until 6."
Pushing everything back puts a strain on everyone — ticket-takers, concession stand workers and officials who show up only to find an empty venue.
"It's a hassle," said Kyle, of Riley High School. "But we're working to do what we can to make it work."
When he announced the later start times in August, South Bend schools Superintendent Kenneth Spells said the change was necessary to assure the district had enough drivers to cover bus routes. Spells at the time acknowledged that the changed schedule could affect team sports and other extracurricular activities but said, "We don't think it's going to be too drastic."
In an interview last week, Spells said "we're trying to get to the bottom" of late starts for athletic events and that he was no longer hearing complaints from parents about children returning home too late.
"We knew there would be some impact to athletics before we made the changes," Spells said. "I knew it was going to be tight. We've worked through that."
Other schools affected
South Bend's decision to push back its start time also affects schools outside the system. South Bend Saint Joseph High School uses the same buses as the city high schools for its athletic teams.
The day after South Bend announced the 4p.m. dismissal time, Saint Joseph athletic director Deb Brown called Concord's Dave Preheim. Their schools were scheduled to open the football season Aug. 17 with a 7p.m. game at Concord. Brown asked to have kickoff pushed back 30 minutes. No way could a South Bend bus make its afternoon rounds, get to Saint Joseph to pick up the Indians and then get to Elkhart County in time for the game.
"It's been challenging, but we're working through," Brown said.
That often means finding its own way to go play. Brown has called Elkhart schools. She's called Jimtown. She's tried Niles. She's talked with Notre Dame. She's contacted private charter buses. When all options are exhausted, Saint Joseph will put its two 14-passenger mini-buses into service.
"We're kind of looking everywhere," Brown said. "We've used all our contacts."
Preheim in Concord is sympathetic to South Bend's situation. He's seen athletic event busing problems arise for many schools around Northern Indiana. It's been more pronounced for South Bend because the dismissal time is later. The four South Bend public high schools belong to the 13-team Northern Indiana Conference. Dismissal times for other schools range from 2:40 (Elkhart Central) to 3:17 (Penn). New Prairie, which is located in the Central Time Zone, still is out 40 minutes earlier (3:20 EST) than South Bend.
Preheim once operated with the idea that all varsity athletic events during the week, save for the occasional basketball game, finish before 9p.m. That way, coaches and administrators could spend time with their families before the day ended. Now that seldom happens. Late nights against South Bend schools are the norm for Concord, which starts school at 7:50a.m.
Preheim wonders what the scheduling future holds for South Bend schools — especially during the week- given that almost every contest starts later and thus runs longer than anticipated. Would he schedule a different school if it meant getting home at a better hour?
"It's too early to say," Preheim said. "Long term, that's something to think about."
Bill Groves, now in his 11th year as athletic director at Adams and 29th in the school system, says the combination of late dismissals and athletics "has been a nightmare with the schedules and busing conflicts. It consumes our day."
Groves currently has a race discrimination lawsuit pending against the South Bend School Corp. He's critical about the busing issue, but that's because he may have the most challenging job trying to balance it all. Adams is the largest city high school (enrollment 1,952) with the most teams. Almost all of the Eagles' sports teams carry a junior varsity.
Groves can set his phone alarm every day for 5p.m. That's when his cell rings with another of his coaches wondering where their athletic bus is to their event. His next move is to call another school's AD to say that Adams is running late.
The buses were so late on Aug. 24 that the Adams football team had to carpool the mile between the high school and TCU School Field.
"I'm more than willing to work with and help our students," Groves said. "But this isn't conducive to a healthy athletic program."
For at least this school year, the late dismissal time for South Bend high schools is here. Does that mean it's also here to stay?
"I can't answer that question," Spells said. "I''m always looking to improve the South Bend school corporation. I believe athletics are important. I didn't make this decision lightly."
The district's athletic director, Seabe Gavin, isn't concerned. Yes, the fall's been a challenge, he says, but it's one he believes the schools and their ADs have met.
"We'll be good before basketball season. We'll be in tip-top shape," Gavin said. "It's a temporary problem with a solution in sight."
Tribune staff writer Margaret Fosmoe contributed to this report.
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