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Wayland parent seeks even playing field — for boys

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Wayland, Mich. — When Title IX was made law in 1972 as part of the landmark United States Education Amendments, high-school and collegiate athletic departments began getting serious about making opportunities equal for boys and girls, men and women.

This week, a parent in this West Michigan city filed a complaint against Wayland Union Schools — saying, it's the boys who aren't on an even playing field.

Shelly Whitley, a former Wayland Union Schools board of education member and a parent of two, says the baseball teams are striking out in terms of diamonds, while the softball teams have home-run facilities.

The high school and middle school, which share a vast campus and some athletic facilities, combine for five softball diamonds, two of which are in immaculate shape, and just one baseball diamond, which has seen better days.

Whitley filed the complaint Tuesday, one day after the current board of education decided again to postpone a decision on building another baseball field. A second baseball field has been talked about, to the point of even pricing out the project, for several years.

"We can't continue to do that. We've kicked this can down the road long enough," Whitley said. "How is nobody fighting for the boys?"

Whitley filed the complaint with the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights.

Wayland Union Schools administrators are aware of the complaint, but are hesitant to discuss the matter until the Department of Education responds. The school's athletic director, Justin Wilson, and its baseball coach, Michael Doupe, declined to comment. Softball coach Cheri Ritz couldn't be reached for comment.

Superintendent Norman Taylor responded to an interview request with an emailed statement, the same statement he gave West Michigan television stations.

"We were disappointed to learn of the complaint that was filed with the OCR," Taylor said in the statement earlier this week. "At this point, we consider the complaint to be prematurely filed as the board of education has not yet taken any final action on the funding for its summer 2015 projects. Unfortunately, we can't prevent someone from filing a complaint before the board has made a final decision.

"If it becomes necessary to respond to the OCR complaint in the future, we will do so."

Whitley said Taylor made an impromptu stop by Whitley's insurance office in Wayland on Friday, three days after the complaint was filed, and told her he is going to push for the project. But whether he has the four necessary votes on the board of education is the big question; there are already two definite "nays."

In an email from board president Nancy Thelen to Whitley the day after Monday's board of education work session, Thelen wrote that the additional baseball diamond would not be included in the district's summer 2015 projects.

Diamond differences

It's no secret in this community, located along the U.S. 131 about halfway between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, that the softball program has the more storied history. Wayland, under Ritz, won the 2006 Division 2 state championship, has sent scores of players on to be impact players at big universities, and has 51 mentions in the state record books. Ironically, 12 Wayland players are in the top 16, all-time, in sacrifices. Not that it's the softball program's responsibility to sacrifice anything for the baseball program.

The Wayland baseball team has mostly struggled over the years, never going far in states. Only one Wayland baseball player is in the record books. The progam's most famous alum is Phil Regan, a major-league pitcher from 1960-72 for whom the baseball field is named.

The Michigan High School Athletic Association doesn't receive federal funds, therefore is not an enforcer of Title IX rules. But on its website, it makes clear what's expected from schools in regard to Title IX. One part reads, "With respect to locker rooms, practice and competitive facilities, there is nothing to justify treating boys and girls differently."

Now, not every high school can have as many baseball diamonds as softball diamonds, for the simple reason that softball diamonds require significantly less property. But many high schools have access to city baseball fields. Wayland has one more baseball diamond, a little more than a mile away, across from the district's Baker Elementary. Many junior-varsity and freshman games and practices get forced there, despite the terrible shape it's in. The playing field is torn up, uneven and bumpy, there's no outfield fence, there are no dugouts, and there's even a house that sits barely 35 feet from the backstop. There also are two softball diamonds down the left- and right-field lines; baseball outfielders often are positioned on the softball diamonds.

"It's not safe," Whitley said. "And it's embarrassing when we play other schools."

So everybody's vying to play on the one high-school baseball diamond — the varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams, two middle-school teams, and the city youth leagues. Softball has almost the same participation, or more, but far more diamonds.

That's why Whitley, when elected to the board of education in 2010, started pushing for a new baseball diamond as a member of the board's athletic committee. There is space for it on the middle-school grounds, if one softball diamond is removed.

But, how about the money?

Wayland Union has had plenty of cash flowing into its coffers for the last seven years, but has opted for other projects. In May 2008, voters passed a $39 million bond, with that money going toward a fine arts center at the high school, football stadium improvements, and upgrades at the high school and the district's four elementary schools. There wasn't anything left for baseball.

Then, in February 2011, Gun Lake Casino opened within the city limits, with Wayland Union Schools becoming an instant, major beneficiary. Gun Lake Casino provides between $1.2 million and $1.6 million, annually, to the school district. That had an immediate benefit to athletes, as that casino fund allowed the school district to eliminate charging a fee to participate in athletics.

In 2010 and 2011, the board of education, led by Whitley, started seeking baseball-diamond quotes. It got one from Holland-based GMB Architecture + Engineering, which put the project at $285,900 when factoring in varsity upgrades, the second baseball diamond and all that comes with that, including excavation, pathways, a drainage system, etc.

Whitley thought the project would move quickly, but she found resistince with the board of education, which decided to spend big on two other projects instead: a $2.8 million, science-wing addition to the high school — built on a 10-year mortgage, with each annual payment about equal to the cost of the entire baseball proposal — and a $642,000 three-year program that provides every student, seventh to 12th grade, with their own $379 iPad and $35 protective case. (Parents pay the insurance.) The iPad program is up for renewal after this school year, and the board of education is set to decide whether the program will expand to include elementary-school students, as well.

Meanwhile, despite the casino funds and state funding, the school district is tapped out — perhaps why the baseball project has been put off again. It's borrowing extensively from a local bank, albeit at zero-percent interest, is projecting just a $17,521 general-fund surplus for the 2014-15 school year, and projects a $489,906 general-fund deficit for the 2015-16 school year. Bill Melching, the district's director of finance, didn't respond to a message seeking comment.

All schools have tough choices; Wayland seems content with the choices its made.

"The district remains committed to providing equal opportunities for all its students, both in terms of athletics and academics," Taylor, the superintendent, said in his statement to The News.

'A broken record'

Whitley and her husband, Aaron, have two kids — Auston, a high-school sophomore who plays baseball, and Maddie, an eighth-grader who plays softball. They don't want this perceived as a movement for her son, who would be a senior or graduated by the time a baseball project was completed. And they don't want this perceived as a knock on the softball program, which has pristine fields in large part because Ritz, also the high school's former athletic director, has been plenty willing to do a lot of the upkeep herself. Doupe, the baseball coach, has been following that lead lately, having his players do some raking and putting a tarp over the mound.

Whitley, who served on the school board from 2010-14 along with her father, Jeff Salisbury, also pointed out she's not taking legal action against the school district over this issue.

She simply filed a complaint, after receiving an unsettling email Tuesday from Thelen, the board president, who wrote: "Some board members questioned what is the bare minimum we can do (costs wise) and why do we need some of the items on the list. Like, water irrigation. Asking about the Title IV (sic). This board needs more time."

Thelen did not respond to a message from The News seeking comment.

After at least four years of the board talking about this, and getting price quotes, Whitley is insisting the time has come to address the problem. Parents, she said, would be happy with four softball fields to two baseball fields, but not 5-to-1.

The board of education has called a special meeting for Monday, after originally canceling an athletics-committee meeting for the same day, to again consider the proposal, Taylor told Whitley on Friday. The district's lawyer also is expected to provide his opinion on the Title IX matter.

"I'm not suing the district, but I'm forcing their hand," she said. "Put the project back on for the summer, just complete the task that they were supposed to complete years ago. I don't want you to continue to kick it down the road, and leave it for someone else to fix. Yes, it's more fun to say we're all getting iPads, but this is important.

"I just got frustrated working on the inside. We'd do all this, we'd get in committees, do all the researching, bring forth a plan, bring it forth to the school board, and then nothing gets done. Then baseball season's over, and we forget about it.

"Oh my gosh, it's kind of like a broken record. That's my frustration."