Sioux Falls School District drops gymnastics as a high school sport
The school board approved a tentative budget on Monday that doesn't fund gymnastics, likely ending supporters' hopes of saving it.
SIOUX FALLS – There was no last-minute reprieve for high school gymnastics in Sioux Falls School District.
The school board approved a tentative budget on Monday, April 24, that did not include money for gymnastics.
It was the end of a months-long appeal by students, parents and supporters of the sport. They tried to convince the school board that help was on the way to reverse lagging participation numbers through increased cooperation with local gyms, recruiting athletes to the school-based programs and backing that up with fundraising if necessary.
It wasn’t enough to move the needle for board members faced with the reality of the phasing out of federal money related to the Covid pandemic and the rising popularity of other girls sports such as softball and wrestling.
“I have really wanted to save this program,” said board member Cynthia Mickelson. “For me it was, can this be sustainable, long-term.”
Sustainability was a key element for the members who addressed the public after a series of speakers made their case for keeping gymnastics as a high school sport.
“For a public school, we need to be able to provide a program that is totally funded,” said board member Carly Reiter. “Not relying on parents, students or private donors to keep it going… Unfortunately, I don’t think our budget allows us to do that long-term.”
There was no vote specific to gymnastics during the meeting on Monday. The overall budget was endorsed unanimously by the board. The final vote will come in July but only minor adjustments would be made as the tentative budget sets the numbers for hiring teachers and staff for the next school year.
Tears and sobs underscored the moment following the vote as the parents and athletes consoled each other.
The sorrow was punctuated with frustration with a process that supporters maintained was opaque at best and lacked any serious discussion about solutions.
“This felt like a predetermined decision,” Angi Allen, one of the parents who organized in an attempt to change the board’s mind, said in an interview with Sioux Falls Live following the vote. “There was no partnership for a plan. There was no outreach for solutions. None of that happened. This is a sport they wanted to cut and they were going to find a way, no matter what.”
The numbers haven’t favored gymnastics. Just 44 athletes competed this year, which includes grades 7 through 12.
By comparison, softball, in its first year as a sanctioned sport drew nearly 100 high schoolers, with a developing middle school program.
There were 25 female wrestlers in high school and another 39 in middle school this year.
The threat of defunding began before the season started when the district attempted to broker a deal for practice space at a local gymnastics academy. But parents pushed back because of the limited window for practice time, which was very early in the morning or late in the evening.
That put the program back in the schools, although with consolidated facilities and coaching staff.
Budget discussion began late last year and the full effect of receding federal dollars to support schools during the pandemic became clear. The various departments were given the task of building budgets that would cut 4% over the next four years.
In January, the Rapid City School District eliminated gymnastics, which raised the alarm statewide that Sioux Falls could be next. It was grim news for the sport that played out in a series of budget meetings leading up to Monday’s vote.
It’s not something that Sioux Falls School Board members wanted to happen, said Mickelson.
“It really encouraged me to see the number of parents and kids who did step up because I thought maybe this is something we can do,” she said. “I wish we could find a way to do this but I look at the numbers… This is one of the many tough choices that we’re probably going to face in the next few years.”
For example, the budget includes $3.2 million for reading recovery, Mickelson said.
“Those are students who are not able to read,” she said. “Those are some of the decisions that have to be made.”
Board president Kate Serenbetz assured the gymnastics supporters that the members read their emails, talked to parents about the issue and asked questions of the district administration.
“We have done our due diligence, I can promise you that,” said Serenbetz. “It’s never easy for us to sit here and cut a program but we have to look at the big picture. And our big picture is that we're heading up to a fiscal cliff in the next few years and we have to be responsible to the taxpayers of this community.”
That position doesn’t resonate with the parents, who see the district adding softball and wrestling while eliminating gymnastics.
“Because we added programs, we have to cut a program?” said Eric Van Beek, the parent of a gymnast. “Does that make sense? Why add if adding necessitates a cut?”
The backers contend the sport is growing, despite the most-recent participation numbers. They maintain that development programs in the local gyms have just begun to produce results and forwarded a survey of gymnastics families that suggested more athletes are coming.
Last week, the group raised the issue of gender equity should gymnastics be cut. The suggestion is that the district would be out of compliance with Title IX, the federal law that mandates equal opportunity for women athletes.
District officials say that's not the case.
“We were hoping that the numbers we sent them were very clear,” said Allen, one of the parents who compiled the information. “That is something that, as a group, we are now going to need to consider.”
World events and shifting economic realities didn’t seem to matter to the teenage girls who came to the meeting on Monday, and those previous, hoping for a different outcome. Their well-reasoned and staccato pleas were like soliques to camaraderie, the familiar bond of sports teams through the generations.
“I have to go tell my daughter that she can’t be in high school gymnastics,” said Van Beek. “It’s going to crush her.”