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Parents: Find way to rejoin GCAC

Even though Citrus County public schools have left the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, some people on the local athletic scene hope the county will reconsider and find a way to rejoin.

For example, Carla Savage, a sophomore on Lecanto High School's golf team, and her father, David, would like the schools to consider assessing athletes a fee to raise money to pay conference costs.

Former Crystal River girls basketball coach Scott Lyons suggested that, since the high school principals have said money is an impediment to GCAC membership, the school system should look to the business community for financial support.

At least one parent, Nanette Lewis, plans to seek relief from the School Board, addressing it during a 9 a.m. meeting Tuesday.

"Seven people sat behind closed doors and decided the fate of over 1,500 kids in this county," said Lewis, whose daughter, Carly, plays golf for Lecanto. "That's not right."

The decision to leave the GCAC was made by the principals and athletic directors at Crystal River High School, Citrus High School and Lecanto High School, along with Dave Stephens, who is in charge of athletics for the school system. The decision was made known to the four other GCAC schools, all of which are in Hernando County, on Tuesday.

The reasons cited for leaving: Spending approximately $2,000 annually, per school, for the conference _ $400 in dues, two $500 bank payments for awards and an additional $300 to $500 for conference coaches meetings held once or twice a year _ was too much and the biggest reason; they didn't like the voting, with four Hernando schools compared with three in Citrus; and the original reason for joining _ to alleviate scheduling problems _ isn't an issue any more.

It took one meeting to discuss and decide the change.

During that meeting, which Lecanto principal Kelly Tyler called on Sept. 17 at his school, everyone was in agreement, Tyler said.

"It (conference membership) has been a financial burden for Lecanto for some time," said Tyler. "That's what I used to make to make my decision."

How much of a financial burden, Tyler wasn't sure, except that he felt the money could be better spent on other things, such as equipment.

"I'd like to see them rediscuss the issue," said Carla Savage, the Lecanto golfer. "To see if there would be any alternative ways to play in the conference that would be easier for the county."

Her father agrees.

"Let the parents get involved," he said. "Have a car wash to raise the money. It doesn't have to come out of the academic phase or anywhere else. It could easily be an athletic fee. The kids would pay to compete in conference."

According to the Florida High School Athletic Association, there were 1,622 public school athletes eligible to play sports in Citrus county _ 556 at Citrus, 485 at Crystal River and 581 at Lecanto _ last year. Those numbers are participation numbers and do not account for the fact that some athletes play multiple sports.

If each school pays $2,000 per year for conference membership, then the fee _ per athlete for each sport he or she plays _ would be, on average, $3.70.

Savage thinks the school should take a student survey. If students still want to play in the conference, why not ask them to pay a few dollars to cover the cost?

"I think people will be glad to chip in a few dollars to be in the conference," she said. "I would."

Even though she knows playing conference tournaments has no bearing on which teams or individuals participate in regional and state competition, Savage still thinks playing in a conference is important.

"It's a chance for me to show my abilities, to be an all-around golfer," said Savage, whose team went undefeated in the conference and placed second in district last season. "It's just that the conference competition seems to have its own special feeling."

Lyons doesn't understand why the schools didn't seek business sponsorship.

"The conference is good for the kids," said Lyons, who owns Crystal River's Nature Coast Title Company with his wife, Sheryl. "Can you go to the business community and get sponsorship and get money? My answer is yes."

Which is something Tyler did not consider doing.

"I think that we go to business community an awful lot already," he said.

Tyler and Lecanto Athletic Director Dick Slack said they did not consider asking parents for money or the school board. Crystal River principal Steve Myers and Citrus principal Mike Mullen have not returned the Times' repeated phone calls since Tuesday.

As for Lewis: She is, by her own description, angry.

"A lot of coaches are upset, and parents are mystified," she said. "I've been told that it doesn't matter if my daughter plays in a conference or not. A conference is a big deal. What college does not use conference records when talking about high school players? It can make a difference."

Crystal River athletic director Earl Bramlett said it doesn't really matter whether a player is in a conference, which he called a dying institution.

"It doesn't mean anything if a kid doesn't run a 4.8 (40-meter dash) or hit that 3-point shot," he said. "College coaches don't care how you did in conference, only how far you went in state competitions."

The road to state goes through district and regional competition, not the conference, which has no bearing on district standings.

Lewis still wants her opinion heard. While the withdrawal from the GCAC isn't on the school board's agenda, if someone fills out a green public comment card before the end of the meeting then the chairman, Ginger Bryant, can recognize the people to talk. Lewis plans to attend and be heard.

On the opposite spectrum is Tyler.

"To be quite honest," he said, "I do not see the impact that this is going to have on students and on schools is going to be as severe as its been made out to be."

But before the Sept. 17 meeting, Tyler approached Mullen, Citrus' principal, and told him he didn't know whether Lecanto could afford to stay in the conference this year or not, because "we simply don't have the money."

Tyler said Lecanto has been operating on a negative budget as a result of less gate money from football games. Last year, the team posted a 1-9 record, and it has had only one winning season in the past 21 years.

"I'm not telling you that we could not have paid into the conference and done it," Tyler said. "What I'm telling you is that I looked at it and said I'm not sure the benefits outweighed the cost."

Slack said on Wednesday that Lecanto draws $2,000 to $3,000 per football game that pays for most of the sports for the entire school year.

Still, many people don't understand.

"For them to pull the plug so quickly and during the season, just doesn't make sense," Lyons said. "To me that's not good business. This is a business, even in high school where education is No. 1, to be viable, you have to have good athletics programs, and you have to have a good business person making sure money is raised."

Both Bramlett and Citrus athletic director Vicki Overman just want people to drop the issue and start moving forward.

"There's no sense beating a dead horse," Overman said. "It's done, and we're going to move on and not have it affect our children."

Slack said the money saved by quitting the conference will be channeled into a general athletics fund that will provide equipment and some type of county awards that will be created.

"I'm 100 percent sure," Slack said. "I can promise you that will happen."

But for now, nothing is in place.

Tyler said there will be a meeting on Monday with all of the Citrus County athletic directors to discuss a plan.

Until then, athletes will compete in conference competitions but will not receive any awards.

"I really think it's a rip-off," Lecanto parent David Savage said. "It would be like playing in the Olympics without winning a medal."

How much money will be saved is yet to be determined.

Tyler admits that while they think there will be savings, athletic directors and principals don't have a plan yet of how much they will spend on awards and how what remains, if anything, will be used in the general athletic fund.

He wasn't the only one who isn't sure if dropping out of the conference will save money.

If Hernando schools don't play Citrus schools next season because of the conference change, it could mean Citrus County schools have to travel farther to fill their schedules.

Overman said it might cost more money, but she didn't really know.

Bramlett was also unsure, stating "We'll just have to wait and see."

Dawn Reiss can be reached at (352) 564-3628 or e-mail