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Citrus County schools withdraw from GCAC

Note: A version of this story also appears in some regional editions of today's Times.

In a shocking move, Citrus, Crystal River and Lecanto high school principals sent a letter to Gulf Coast Athletic Conference president Tizzy Schoelles on Tuesday, announcing their intention to withdraw from the organization effective immediately.

"I guess we are pulling out," Crystal River athletic director Earl Bramlett said. The other members are in Hernando County: Hernando, Springstead, Nature Coast Tech and Central.

Citrus County high school principals _ Lecanto's Kelly Tyler, Citrus' Mike Mullen and Crystal River's Steve Myers _ athletic directors and county staff member Dave Stephens met Friday to discuss the possibility, unbeknownst to Schoelles. Schoelles, who was surprised, said she was unaware of the Citrus County schools' concerns before this week, and she said they had not been discussed at any GCAC meetings.

"We thought we had to do it quickly or wait until next year," Citrus AD Vicki Overman said.

Schoelles said that, according to the GCAC bylaws, notification to leave the conference should be made at an annual May meeting. Schoelles will call an emergency meeting to decide if the Hernando County schools will continue the conference or dissolve it.

"We've always had a good relationship between Hernando and Citrus schools," said Schoelles, the principal at Nature Coast. "This has been a good conference for coaches and kids. Apparently, the conference is not being viewed as a positive light in Citrus. It would be of no benefit (to the GCAC) to force them to engage in something they don't want to."

All Citrus County principals were in a meeting Tuesday and could not be reached for comment.

In the letter, several reasons were cited for Citrus County schools' withdrawal:

The most important reason: money. Each school pays close to $2,000 to maintain conference membership. That includes $400 in annual dues, and two $500 payments used for awards. A $900 payment from each school is due Oct. 1.

Citrus schools joined to alleviate scheduling problems, which according to the letter are no longer are an issue. Lecanto athletic director Dick Slack said there are plenty of new schools, including Ocala West Port, Nature Coast, Pasco's Mitchell and Wesley Chapel, to make a large selection.

Because the league comprises schools from two counties, there are numerous differences on policy issues that result in a "differing vision of the missions of the conference." When a vote is required on a particular issue, Citrus County schools are always are on the losing end of the ballot, since decisions come down to three votes (Citrus schools) to four (Hernando), the letter said.

The letter also states that the decision was made in the best interest of Citrus schools and doesn't negatively reflect upon Hernando schools. The letter said Citrus has a strong desire to continue competing with Hernando schools.

"In my opinion, that money can be better spent on our kids," Lecanto AD Dick Slack said. "There are no plans at this time for Citrus County schools to join another conference."

Conference finishes have no bearing on postseason competition. What counts for the playoffs is finishing in the top two in a district.

But many coaches worry about the effect on athletes. Crystal River cross country coach Tim Byrne said his athletes look forward to earning all-conference honors that come with a patch.

"To take that away is horrible," Byrne said, adding that "the conference championship is the pinnacle of our regular-season races."