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Citrus' conference move needs more explaining

Seven adults within the Citrus County school system have decided to deny more than 1,600 Citrus student athletes the opportunity to earn coveted regional recognition for the hard work of these teenagers in their chosen sports.

Almost as bad as the decision for all three Citrus County high schools to withdraw immediately from the Gulf Coast Athletic Conference, which includes Central, Springstead, Hernando and Nature Coast Technical high schools, is the bumbling, disingenuous manner in which it was handled.

From quitting in the midst of the football season, to notifying conference officials by a surprise fax, to being less than forthright about the reasons for the change, the principals and athletic directors of Citrus, Lecanto and Crystal River high schools, plus a district athletic official, have poorly served the students and their parents who are affected most by the decision.

Citrus County's decision reaches beyond the district's borders. Withdrawing from the GCAC dilutes the significance of the all-conference competition and awards for those Hernando County students who remain in the gutted conference, rendering the honors virtually meaningless.

The surprise letter announcing the decision, signed by the principals of Citrus County's three high schools, cites weak reasons for quitting the conference.

Money allegedly is the major point. Each school spends about $2,000 annually to belong to the conference, with the money going for awards, coaches meetings and dues. It is difficult, though, to believe that money is truly the obstacle.

Why, for instance, did Citrus officials not raise the issue with the conference members from Hernando County's four public high schools? If there has ever been a discussion about reducing the fees during tight financial times, Citrus' principals and athletic directors have not offered any evidence to prove it.

While $2,000 may be a significant amount of money for small schools in rural counties, it represents the take for just one football game, said Lecanto High athletic director Dick Slack. (Crystal River and Citrus gate receipts are higher, he noted.) That one game raises enough money to cover most of the sports at Lecanto for the entire school year, he said.

With the Citrus schools dropping from the conference, they may have to travel farther to find competition from schools in other counties. Doesn't that mean higher transportation costs? The athletic directors who spoke to the Times could not answer that question.

Another reason mentioned in the letter is that Hernando County, with four schools, outvotes Citrus on conference matters. That argument might be valid but for two important details: First, Hernando added a fourth high school only last year; second, no one can recall a time when Citrus was outvoted on any issue.

Amazingly, the closest vote that came to mind was in 1993 when the three Hernando schools joined with Crystal River to honor a Crystal River soccer standout as player of the year. Those voting against the Citrus County youth? Lecanto and Citrus high schools.

Notwithstanding the irony, that episode demonstrates the real value of the conference, at least for the student athletes: the chance to earn conference honors and recognition.

Historically, Citrus and Hernando are not sports powerhouses on the district or state levels, meaning that conference awards take on added weight. John Sedlack, Central High athletic director, said it best: "When you look at most of the banners hanging in these gyms, you'll see conference banners. It gave our kids a championship to fight for."

But student athletes were not part of the decision. Neither were their parents, some of whom have offered to help raise the $2,000 (if money truly is that critical), nor were most of the coaches in the two counties.

The seven Citrus County administrators owe the community a fuller explanation than they have provided so far. If they continue to be vague about their reasons for pulling out of the conference, especially midyear and without public discussion, then Citrus County superintendent David Hickey should order them to open up.

So far, Hickey has stayed out of the fray, saying this is the principals' decision. But they answer to him, and he, in turn, answers to the public. Hickey must be held accountable for his administrators' being unresponsive and, apparently, out of touch with what coaches, students and parents want.

And, if Hickey still refuses to get involved, the Citrus County School Board must insist that he provide an explanation. If the decision is as simple and defensible as the administrators want the public to believe, that should not be difficult.

The 1,600 Citrus County students who no longer can aspire to be tops in their traditional athletic conference, as well as coaches and students in Hernando County, are owed an honest answer.

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