Originally created 12/16/01

Leveling the field



Before this year, Amber Ross played volleyball only in her physical education classes.

This year, the Burke County High School sophomore was the setter for the school's first volleyball team.

"We didn't win any matches, but we had a lot of fun," the 15-year-old said of the 11-member squad. "I definitely want to play again next year."

Georgia gave local school systems a push to add volleyball and other team sports for girls with the passage of the Equity in Sports Act.

Voted on by the Georgia legislature in March 2000 and made into law four months later, the act serves as a companion to the federal Title IX law. It requires Georgia school systems to ensure female student athletes are afforded equal opportunities and are offered collegiate-level scholarship sports.

For girls such as Amber, the law ushered in volleyball programs in Burke and Richmond counties and established an avenue for the creation of more girls sports programs.

"Being somewhat of a feminist, it really boosts your self-esteem to be able to participate in something like this," Amber said.

While agreeing with the intent of the law, some Augusta-area school officials are concerned about what will happen five to 10 years from now. They say they were already complying with Title IX and that the state law has the potential to cost them money they don't have.

Wade Marchman, Burke County High School's athletics director, said the new law and student interest prompted his school to add girls volleyball and soccer.

"It cost us about $6,000 to start the girls volleyball program," Mr. Marchman said. The system also spent an estimated $5,000 to start the soccer program. The money for both sports came out of revenue generated by football gate admissions.

Mr. Marchman said typically the money would have been spent on other sports, such as girls softball and football, but they were able to spend the $11,000 without carving into the budgets of existing programs.

Ralph Swearngin, the executive director of the Georgia High School Association, said some school systems will have to make adjustments because of the new law, including balancing practice times, finding money for new programs and upgrading facilities.

"I think that people are a little surprised at how extensive the gender equity law is," he said.

Money is the complaint of local school systems' athletics directors, said Rep. Stephanie Stuckey, D-Decatur.

"They don't like the legislature handing down mandates without (funding) them," said Ms. Stuckey, who co-sponsored the bill with Rep. Kathy Ashe, R-Atlanta.

McDuffie County schools Superintendent Ed Grisham said the law has required him to make budget adjustments.

"We were looking at lighting our baseball field and then phasing in the lighting for our softball field, but to be in compliance we have to do both now," he said.

Mr. Grisham, who has only one high school in his district - Thomson - said the law could present financial problems in the future if other sports programs are created.

"It has definitely been an added expense," Mr. Grisham said. "And I think for a lot of real small districts this could be a problem."

Paperwork

All of Georgia's 180 public school systems were required to submit a compliance report by Aug. 30 to the state Education Department to gauge whether they are in line with the new law.

Now that the reports are in, the question facing the Department of Education is: What now?

"We haven't decided what to do with the data. We're still in the planning stages," said Betsy Howerton, the equity coordinator for the Georgia Department of Education.

The seven-page compliance report asks for participation rates, financial data, equal opportunity information and complaints data.

The compliance reports are in a filing cabinet in Atlanta. Ms. Howerton said it could be February or March before the state decides how to verify the information the systems have submitted.

Without a method to check on the information, the state is relying solely on the word of the school systems.

The law also requires each system to designate a sports equity coordinator and provide students with the coordinator's name, office address and telephone number. Systems also must adopt and publish grievance procedures.

At this point, Ms. Howerton said, her office is not dealing with any complaints. However, at the federal level, three complaints were filed from Georgia this year, according to the Office of Civil Rights.

One was filed when a female athlete in Fulton County was not allowed to try out for football. After the complaint was lodged, she was allowed to go out for the team.

Inadequate facilities in Clarke County prompted another complaint. Parents of softball players there were concerned that the system was not working quickly enough to convert an old baseball field into a softball field.

The work involved leveling the pitcher's mound and upgrading the infield area. A corrective plan was ordered and has been completed, said Mike Wooten, the director of public relations and communications for Clarke County schools.

Even if complaints were filed under the state law this year, school systems have until 2003 to implement the Equity in Sports Act.

If school systems such as Fulton County - which reported four out of 10 schools do not have adequate girls softball or soccer fields - are not in compliance by then, they can be penalized.

A system that is not in compliance will have to submit a plan to correct the problem and follow through. A notice of violation by the school will be sent to the Department of Community Affairs, which distributes grants.

If a system is still found to be in violation of the law, the school - and, possibly, the system - could be barred from postseason athletic competition. The state also could withhold money.

Money questions

With the law still in its first year, school systems don't yet know the financial toll of building up programs.

The larger systems with more resources will have a larger cushion.

George Bailey, the sports equity coordinator for Richmond County, said his system has not felt the pinch others might be experiencing. This year Richmond County spent close to $5,000 on uniforms and balls alone to start volleyball programs in nine of the county's 10 high schools.

Richmond County also had to spend $22,000 to buy nets and install the hardware in gym floors that supports the nets. Most high schools played at Richmond County Recreation Department facilities this fall. Cross Creek was the exception.

In Columbia County, a system with four high schools, more money is being spent on coaching supplements, said Charles Nagle, the sports equity coordinator and associate superintendent.

For example, the new coaching supplement for the head varsity baseball coach in Columbia County is $3,250. The revised varsity softball coach's supplement is $2,000. The $1,250 difference is the result of the number of games played by each team. The varsity baseball team played 26 games, while varsity girls softball played only 16 games.

Mr. Nagle said all the coaching supplements were re-examined, and most received an increase based on the number of games. The amounts of the previous supplements were not readily available, according to Pat Sullivan, the controller for the Columbia County school system.

"I feel real good about where we're at. But we did have some things we had to bring into compliance," Mr. Nagle said. Columbia County also is looking at lighting several softball fields to meet the law's mandates.

Columbia and Richmond counties have had no complaints thus far.

"Our system has worked really hard at (gender equity), and we are really happy with where we are," Mr. Nagle said.

Mr. Bailey said he doesn't believe meeting the law's demands will be a problem in Richmond County.

"So far, Richmond County hasn't received any complaints regarding gender equity," he said. "If we do, then we'll see where we really stand."

Jana Lovett, who played on Burke County's volleyball team this year, said she thinks the law is working.

"I loved playing volleyball," the 16-year-old said. "I think this just goes to show that opportunities have been opened up for female athletes."

Reach Ashlee Griggs and Chris Gay at (706) 724-0851.