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It's time for answers in school conference move

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 their hard work 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 is the bumbling, disingenuous manner in which it has been handled.

From quitting in the midst of the football season, to notifying conference officials by a surprise fax message, 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.

The Citrus County schools' 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.

While a possible solution mentioned Tuesday by Citrus High principal Mike Mullen, which would create an all-county patch available to all student competitors and not just athletes, has merit, the suggestion seems an afterthought and a reaction to the criticism raised by the decision to quit the conference.

The surprise letter announcing the decision, signed by the principals of Citrus County's three high schools, makes no mention of such a replacement award. Instead, it cites weak reasons for quitting the conference.

Money allegedly is the major point. Each school spends approximately $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 such an obstacle.

Why, for instance, did Citrus officials not raise the issue with the conference members from Hernando County's four high schools? If there has ever been a discussion about reducing the fees during tight financial times, the 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, according to 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. And there are four other home games on the schedule each year.

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 only added a fourth high school last year; second, no one can ever 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 the kids 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 very difficult to do.

Given the damage that has already been done, it is unrealistic to believe that Citrus can reverse course and rejoin the GCAC. And if the new idea of an all-county patch leads to more students _ such as those involved with band, ROTC, academic teams and clubs _ being recognized, then something good might be salvaged from this episode.

But the 1,600 Citrus County students who no longer can aspire to be tops in their traditional athletic conference are owed an honest answer.