by Andrew Bagley
During the spring semester last year, the Arkansas Activities Association went through the process of reclassification and reconfiguration of conferences that it does every two years. As that process unfolded the AAA staff, apparently unable to read a map, placed Helena-West Helena Central in the 5A-Central conference. The other members of that conference are: Pulaski Academy, Little Rock Christian Academy, N. Pulaski, Jacksonville, Sylvan Hills, LR Mills, and LR McClellan. You have probably noticed that all of those schools are in Pulaski County.
The AAA overlooked the fact that Beebe sits just to the north, approximately 30 minutes away from those schools. It placed Beebe in a conference with schools like Forrest City, Wynne, Blytheville, Batesville, Nettleton, Greene County Tech, and Paragould. As you can see if you passed geography in elementary school, those schools are in the eastern part of the state. Can you get more eastern than Helena-West Helena? The answer is no unless you go into the State of Mississippi.
Helena-West Helena Superintendent Suzann McCommon and Athletic Director Earnest Simpson did what anyone would do for their students in the face of such a clear disregard for common sense and fairness. They appealed to the Board of Directors of the AAA, a group that is supposed to serve as a check and balance on the AAA staff. The hearing was yesterday. And, let me tell you, they fought hard to keep our kids on the bus less and in the classroom more while still being able to compete. Helena-West Helena, for the first time in decades, had administrators go to work and fight hard for the kids of this district against the powerful forces in Little Rock.
McCommon and Simpson prepared an impeccable argument. They presented evidence at yesterday's appeal hearing that showed that Helena-West Helena's travel would be cut by 17% if it were placed in the 5A-East. They showed that Beebe's travel would be decreased by 68% if it were placed in the 5A-Central.
What did Beebe have to say about this? They told the Board that they wanted to remain in the 5A-East so that they could remain with schools that had "similar test scores and academic cultures" according to some present at the hearing. Since when did we make determinations about athletics on that basis? The answer is we don't. I believe that was code word from Beebe's administration to suggest something more sinister.
After the evidence was presented, the AAA Board voted 9-9 to reject Helena-West Helena's appeal. At that point, those with a Christian heart in the room were undoubtedly reminded of John 11:35 which reads, "Jesus wept." The AAA told the poor kids in a district in fiscal distress that they must spend more to be able to enjoy the benefits of athletics. The AAA told the kids fighting hard to raise test scores on campuses in school improvement status that they must miss more class in order to be able to play sports and experience athletics.
The AAA has been saying for years that we needed to find ways to reduce travel expenses and lost classroom time. Apparently, they really didn't mean it. The AAA accepted appeals from most schools yesterday. They accepted appeals that had less merit than Helena-West Helena's. They even accepted one from LR Catholic that forced LR Central to go east on the basis of Catholic being approximately four miles farther away that LR Central from those schools.
What was about Helena-West Helena's that was different? Beebe is a relatively wealthy district that is over 80% white. Helena-West Helena is a poor district with a student body that is over 90% black. Other than that, I can't see where there were any differences than the travel-based arguments made by those schools whose appeals were accepted.
So let's change our fight song to Willie Nelson's "On the Road Again." We're going to become very familar with restaurants in Little Rock over the next two years.
But we know our Cougars will fight on. They will persevere. They will compete. As for the AAA, I heard Jeff Foxworthy might be headed to Little Rock to do a show based on decisions made by the AAA staff.