A couple of months ago when school officials first began talking about middle school sports, their direction focused entirely on cutting programs to save money.
The committee tasked with studying the idea just released its report last week, and the results are a pleasant surprise: Rather than just hacking off random limbs, the committee recommends the fitness equivalent of cosmetic surgery and better exercise.
Made up of a combination of athletic directors, coaches and administrators from middle and high schools, along with a couple of members of the community, the committee took a top-to-bottom look not just at middle school sports, but at how those sports mesh with high school and recreation department programs.
Their recommendations include eliminating sixth graders from participation; cutting out middle-school junior varsity programs; eliminating middle school golf and adding volleyball; and allowing more middle-schoolers to participate at the high school level.
The recommended cuts are relatively minor, and based on upcoming and potentially painful budget discussions for next year, more cuts could be coming. But these are a good start.
Another of the recommendations, though, attacks the funding problem from the other direction by seeking more participation from parents. It makes sense to charge modest participation fees for middle-school athletes, especially if - as rightly insisted by Columbia County Recreation Director Charlie Beale, a member of the committee - there are programs in place so that no child is excluded from participation because of his or her ability to pay.
Besides, as school board member Mickie Blackburn points out, the recreation department already charges fees for participants, as do Little League and all other area athletic programs.
For anyone still squeamish about fees, it's important to remember that when the middle school concept was created and replaced junior high schools, it recommended elimination of school-vs.-school sports in favor of intramural programs in which all students participate.
Unless advocates want to consider eliminating sports programs altogether, they shouldn't mind helping to pay at least a portion of the freight rather than keeping it all on taxpayers.
In any event, the next step in the process won't come until board members consider the proposals as part of overall budget discussions.
All in all, well played.
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