FLORENCE – Three years of Title IX scrutiny proved educational and enlightening for officials in the Florence-Carlton School District.
The district’s ongoing efforts responding to complaints, leveled by an outside source and reviewed by the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, might serve as a cautionary tale for all districts. Whether you’re from Florence or Sidney or Fargo, N.D., honest mistakes are easy to make.
“We’ve gotten into where the complaint,” offers Florence Superintendent John McGee, “has gone down to this: One year when the Loyola (Sacred Heart) boys’ basketball team was playing here we realized we were going to have a sold-out crowd. We thought we needed to make sure we had three referees for crowd control. Both teams I think at that time were ranked in the top 5 in the state.
“When we did that we then got a Title IX complaint that said we were inequitably treating boys’ and girls’ athletics because we had three referees at the boys’ game and only two at the girls. The argument we made to the OCR was it was for safety reasons. We have changed the way we look at it.”
Title IX is a federal law prohibiting sex discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Florence-Carlton has been under a microscope since 2009 when a formal complaint was filed alleging, among other things, a failure to provide equal opportunities with respect to equipment, locker room square footage and funds.
Although there have been grumblings in the community for a perceived failure to act swiftly, McGee says his district has made it a priority to work with the Office of Civil Rights. He called it “unnerving” when the complaints were first leveled. He and his staff have since taken a positive, proactive approach.
“Once you start to work through it, you realize it’s a healthy academic exercise administratively,” McGee said. “We’ve taken a close look at ourselves and realized we can make a couple steps to make improvement.”
The district met a January deadline in which it was required to submit information to the OCR.
“Now I’m in a holding pattern to see whether or not any more comes out of our response,” McGee said. “It’s a go-back-and-forth. We get a letter saying we have to respond to certain items. We respond, submit it to them and they submit our results to the (complainant).
“It’s a long, drawn-out process. At this point, we believe we’re close to this being a done deal. But you never know. Another item could be popped up and thrown into the mix.”
Mark Beckman, executive director for the Montana High School Association, stressed Wednesday that Montana is still working under the guidelines of the Ridgeway Settlement Agreement from 1982. The agreement was reached in federal District Court after alleged violations by the MHSA and individual districts. Ridgeway goes beyond what is required under Title IX.
“Students that have attended Montana high schools since 1982, both genders, have been every fortunate I believe,” Beckman said. “Some of the horror stories you hear out there even in the last few years in other states that are in major Title IX lawsuits, that has not happened in Montana.
“Because of Ridgeway, our staff and board and MHSA associate director Joanne (Austin) in particular have done a great job in making sure our schools comply.
“But we have new administrators and coaches and they don’t realize Ridgeway is out there. ... It’s important they stay up to date on it and use (the MHSA) as a resource if they have any questions.”
There are facets of Title IX that may come as a surprise.
Fundraising guidelines, for example, can be a stickler. Under Title IX, money raised from in-season fundraisers for athletics must be distributed equally among the boys and girls.
For example, if a school receives funds from an outside source and the source benefits a boys’ basketball program, the school is obligated by law to find resources somewhere to ensure that the girls’ program has the same benefit.
“We realized that through our activity funds where each team went out and hustled and did their own fundraising, they all worked hard,” McGee said. “It’s just that sometimes one group was a little more successful than the next.
“In the past what it was is each team that raised its money was allowed to keep that money for activity funds. We looked at it as if the kids put their sweat and effort into this and want to offset the cost of going to the state tournament where it’s going to cost them money to eat, this money could be used to offset that.”
Under Title IX guidelines, that’s not acceptable. So Florence-Carlton has implemented changes.
“What we realized in looking at it is, even though we didn’t see a lot of disparity from year to year, OCR does not care about that,” McGee said. “All they care is that you have a way to report it that shows that you’re treating it equally. What we instituted was that all fundraising efforts in Florence will go into a basic account called our Title IX account to make it clear this money was to be divided up equally.”
McGee pointed out that all of the coaches in his school system have signed sworn statements acknowledging their programs are being treated fairly. But there have been positives that have developed from the Title IX scrutinization.
For one, Florence-Carlton is looking at conducting one large fundraiser, something like a golf event, to support all its programs. That may help develop even more unity between all programs.
“We believed we were always being equitable in our treatment and we have not admitted to any wrongdoing because we’re in a voluntary resolution with the OCR,” stressed McGee. “The changes we’ve made have been for more transparency.”
McGee has a little friendly advice for other districts.
“I would say it’s always healthy to look inside what you are doing with regard to your handling of girls’ and boys’ athletics,” he offered.
Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or firstname.lastname@example.org.