Effort is officially under way to bring football to CHS in fall

School board directs administrators to try to do three things needed to get a team on the field for the 2002 season.

By: John Tredrea
   An effort to bring interscholastic football to Hopewell Valley Central High School this fall is officially under way.
   The unanimous consensus of the school board on May 16 was to direct administrators to try to do three things needed to get a team on the field for the 2002 season.
Those three items are:
   • to hire a suitable head coach and one or more assistants;
   • get a schedule of games from the Colonial Valley Conference, of which Hopewell Valley is a member;
    • and come to contractual agreement with HIKE, the local nonprofit group that has offered to pay all costs of high school football for the first two years, three-fourths of the costs the third year and one-half the costs the fourth year. The district would pay all costs thereafter.
   The board agreed to follow Superintendent Robert Sopko’s recommendation that July 15 be the deadline for hiring a coach, having a schedule and coming to contractual agreement with HIKE.
   If the July 15 deadline is not met on any those items, there will be no team this fall.
   About 40 people jammed the board’s meeting room to standing-room-only capacity for the two-hour meeting, held in the district’s administrative headquarters in Pennington. During the emotionally charged session, public comment was about evenly split for and against the pigskin proposal.
   Many who were against it stressed that a $53,000 referendum to start football was defeated by a better than 2-1 margin in April 2001, when the district’s base budget was overwhelmingly approved by the voters.
   Those who spoke in favor of football said the sport offers an opportunity the high school deserves. Supporters of football noted there are five winter sports and five spring sports for boys at the high school, but only two fall sports.
   The first person to speak was enraged that the board would try to start a football program in the wake of last year’s referendum. "This was voted down!" the man thundered. "What part of ‘no!’ don’t you understand?"
   Pennington resident Mary Tierney agreed. "I’m appalled," she said. Alluding to the referendum that spurned funding football, she added: "The issue is democracy. The voters turned it down. You’re overthrowing the citizens’ vote. My school taxes went up $800 this year on a one-story home. This is an exercise in greed."
   Adding a note of humor into a gathering that generated few smiles and many scowls, Ms. Tierney concluded: "I have no problem with the football culture. I’m an avid Eagles fan. And anybody who knows their record will tell you that takes guts!"
   Township resident Tom Bartlett supported bringing in football. He said some opponents of the sport appear to be misinformed. Noting that HIKE would pay all costs the first two years and part of the costs the following two years, he echoed an earlier statement from board member Kim Newport by saying, "Money is not the issue here."
   Mr. Bartlett added, "I applaud the board for having the backbone" to bring in football. "The fact that only 15 percent of the high school boys are participating in fall sports is something we all should be ashamed of."
   Pennington resident Michael Boyle agreed with Mr. Bartlett, noting HIKE will pay startup costs and Pop Warner will provide fields for a high school football team if one is formed. "I applaud the board for moving forward on this," Mr. Boyle said. "This is in our community’s tradition of providing an activity for our youth if the kids are saying they want it."
   Central High School English teacher Tery Solomon disagreed with Mr. Bartlett and Ms. Newport on the cost issue. "It will become a cost issue after the first four years," when the school district will have to pay everything for football, she said. "I think there are less expensive alternatives. I’m concerned because I’m seeing rapidly increasing class sizes and budgets pared to the bone."
   Another woman who lives in the district scoffed at statements made by school officials in recent weeks that their intentions are that football would be just another sport at the high school, not the dominant sport. "It will be the king sport. That’s why it was voted down," she said.
   If the district does start football this fall, it will evaluate the program in-depth after two years. That way, it will have the option of discontinuing the sport before having spent any money on it, since HIKE will pay all costs the first two years.
   Current estimates are that football would cost $71,853 the first year, $64,310 the second, $96,610 the third and $94,431 the fourth. Included in those totals are busing costs, which would be $22,800 per year for the first two years, and $27,360 per year for the third and fourth years.
   Since the high school has no football field, the players would have to be transported to the Pop Warner fields off Scotch Road about a mile from the high school, which is on Pennington-Titusville Road. Use of the Pop Warner fields is part of the HIKE offer.
   Dr. Sopko and high school Principal John Bach have stressed that it is very important to find a coach who will run a football program that will not result in the creation of a so-called "bullying elite" of football players and/or a declining respect for academics at the high school.
   Hopewell Valley is the only Group III high school in the state that does not have football. At the April 23 school board meeting, Hopewell Valley athletic director said a recent survey indicated that 37 percent of boys in grades eight and nine "expressed an interest in playing football if it were offered here next year."
   Overall in grades seven-12, Mr. Murphy added, 190 boys and 62 girls expressed interest in participating in a football program. Participation can include such tasks as scorekeeper, manager and statistician.
   During the public hearing May 16, high school student Scott Babinowich said the survey was flawed. "The survey was very confusing," he said. "It was given during gym classes … a lot of the students thought they were being surveyed on what they wanted to do during gym class, not on whether we should have a football team. I think we should use financial resources on activities that benefit all students, not just some of them."
   Explaining his support a football program, board member Carl Swanson said he and other board members "started out being skeptical about changing the community" by adding the sport. "But a very large number of students are interested. It’s one of the most popular sports. We stand alone as a district that doesn’t offer football while having students that want to play it. It’s a program whose time has come."
   Board member Bill Hills agreed. "Football was a good opportunity for me in high school. I’d like to see more people have it." He said the existence of a local Pop Warner league and the fact that there are only two fall sports for boys at the high school are factors in his support for starting a gridiron team at Central High. He said "it’s only fair for us to tell" the boys in the Pop Warner program "that they can take the next step. I’m excited by what I see."
   Board member David Goldschmidt said "athletics are valuable. They teach teamwork, competitiveness and discipline. The idea that we don’t need athletics is a mistake. The more ways we give our children to succeed, the better off we are. The more opportunities they have, the healthier our community will be."
   Dr. Sopko said interscholastic sports at the high and middle schools account for 1.9 percent of the district’s total budget. "I don’t think football will change that percentage," he said.