The school district’s decision to reconsider its approach to allowing students from outside the district to compete on Ottumwa teams needs to be approached with caution. While the willingness to re-evaluate in light of information board members say is new is laudable, they also risk creating a much more confused situation than previously existed.

Monday’s discussion focused largely on the boys swimming team, which could be decimated by the board’s prior decision to prohibit activities sharing. We admit to being a bit baffled by the insistence this is new information. The issue had been raised. Stories from the discussions last fall specifically mentioned that team as one that could be at risk if sharing ended.

No one wants to see students put into a no-win situation. Low numbers on a team, especially one that has the physical demands involves in a swim meet, would rapidly make the team vulnerable. It’s physically impossible for a small handful of people to swim competitively in every event at a meet, and blowout losses aren’t known for helping build a program.

But board members are also right in that allowing sharing for one sport will inevitably raise questions about why others cannot do the same. Higher numbers may not mean more wins, but they certainly don’t hurt.

Gary Granneman’s comment was dead on: “I’ve talked with three other coaches,” he said, “and they are standing in line saying ‘When do we get a chance to come in with the same argument?’”

One of the positions voiced Monday, that the district should offer a sport even if there is only one student interested in competing, caught our attention. The sentiment is praiseworthy. It speaks to the desire to offer students every opportunity possible. It is, however, probably not a basis upon which the board should approach extracurricular activities.

As Superintendent Nicole Kooiker pointed out, academic classes are eliminated if the numbers don’t justify their continuance. That’s not a step taken out of cruelty or out of indifference to students’ interests, but one imposed by the reality that no school district has unlimited funds. Hard decisions are sometimes necessary. When that’s the academic reality, and when academics are the foremost purpose of the district, there should be no disputing the fact hard decisions sometimes need to be made in other activities.

That, though, brings us back to the basic question the board is wrestling with: what is viability? Is it having enough students to field a team? Is it having enough to be competitive? Who determines that level?

The suggestion that coaches give a minimum number of students needed to continue a program isn’t a bad one. But board members must know that what a coach views as necessary may not line up with other measures. What happens when a coach returns a figure so high it is clearly intended to open up the sport to students outside the district? Will the board dispute it and, if so, upon what basis will it do so?

Numbers also fluctuate. Figuring out whether a sport is open or closed from year to year seems guaranteed to be chaotic. It would definitely impose an uncomfortable level of uncertainty for students and parents.

All of those questions need clear answers. And no solution is likely to come close to pleasing everyone. Inevitably, someone is going to feel aggrieved.

Jeff Bittner had it right, too, when he said it’s “going to be hard to draw a line.” It will be. But if the district is intent on finding an option other than all or nothing, it’s going to have to draw one.

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