BUTTE — After decades as fierce rivals, Butte Central and Anaconda High School are considering dropping their differences, joining forces on the gridiron and creating a single cooperative football team.
While no final decision has been made, the schools have been discussing the proposal behind closed doors for months. And on Wednesday, the subject will be considered at public meetings in both Butte and Anaconda.
Community input is important, both sides agree, but the clock is ticking on the decision. To move forward with a co-op in time for this fall's football season, both school boards would have to approve the move by the end of the month and jointly apply as a co-op with the Montana High School Association before the Feb. 1 deadline.
MHSA Executive Director Mark Beckman would then decide whether or not to approve the request. According to association rules, such an agreement would last for a three-year period, after which time it could be renewed.
Butte Central president and football coach Don Peoples Jr. confirmed that, while no final decisions have been made, the concept of Central and Anaconda High enlisting in a co-op has been discussed between the school districts since November and that the two administrative teams and school boards held a meeting in December to explore the idea of an athletic partnership.
“We’re trying to make decisions for both teams and trying to take into consideration what is best for the student-athlete,” Peoples said. “I think both communities are trying to do some due diligence with parents and coaching staffs. Both communities are in sort of a fact-finding phase right now. No decisions have been made in either community.”
Central will hold an informational parent-teacher meeting on Wednesday at 5:15 p.m. at the Central High School auditorium to discuss the possibility of a co-op and to give community members a chance to voice their opinions.
“It will provide an opportunity for our school family to provide their input and ask questions,” Peoples said.
The Anaconda public school district will also discuss the proposal Wednesday during a 7 p.m. meeting of the district's Board of Trustees at the Little Theater at Anaconda High School.
Jaime Valentini, chair of the Anaconda school board, emphasized Tuesday that that no decision has yet been made and that the proposal will only be discussed — not voted on — at Wednesday's meeting.
“At this stage, we’re really looking for community input," Valentini said.
So far, she says members of the community have raised a number of issues about the potential merger, such as the name of the new team, who would coach it and whether a three-year agreement might be "problematic" for the students.
But while noting "there are issues that we have to overcome," Valentine said, "Both schools, they’ve got very small sports programs and we really want to consider helping them get some wins, possibly, by having one bigger team.”
Currently, Butte Central competes in Class A, despite having a student enrollment that would qualify it for the smaller Class B classification, where Anaconda currently competes. Butte Central has had to petition the MHSA to remain in Class A. If the teams join forces, they would be required compete in the higher of the two classifications, Beckman said.
While he said a variety of sports, including golf, have been considered for a co-op between the two schools, Peoples noted that the primary focus has been on football, with both teams experiencing an ongoing trend of lower participation numbers and player health — specifically, the risk and long-term effects of concussions among football players — now a significant national concern.
Ultimately, lower participation numbers in football results in the remaining players handling extended time on the field and being subjected to an increased chance of injury. A co-op between Central and Anaconda would give the combined program a larger pool of players to work with and diminish the chance of injury that results from prolonged playing time.
“There’s a climate out there over concerns of safety that’s prevalent in our culture,” Peoples said. “That’s the one driving force behind these discussions.”
Peoples noted that co-ops are becoming more commonplace throughout the state of Montana, with over 200 co-ops currently existing across all high school sports.
And while he said that it may be tough to see the two historic rivals elect to partner together, player safety supersedes pride.
“I’m driven by some mixed emotions,” Peoples said. “We’ve got the tradition and things that we’ve developed in our programs but there’s a lot of issues about the well-being of student athletes. We’re trying to make the decision on what’s best for the kids.”
That sentiment is echoed by Blake Hempstead, a member of the Anaconda school district's Board of Trustees and the proprietor of Copperhead Country, a website where he livestreams Anaconda High School football and other sports.
"I get the rivalry," Hempstead said. "I’ve lived it. I still tell my kids Butte Central jokes. I have friends on both sides of the rivalry, so I understand it’s a tough thing to wrap your head around. But at the end of the day, we’d be doing a disservice if we didn’t have the kids' best interest in mind.”
According to Valentini, the Anaconda school district's Board of Trustees will determine during or after Wednesday's meeting whether to proceed with the issue.
“If the board feels, after all the community input, that this is an item we want to continue with, we’ll have a special meeting," Valentini said.