Dan Stockel was one of fourteen Sitkans to share his views on Moller Field with the school board. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The opening of a new multi-million dollar baseball field in Sitka earlier this fall is polarizing the community in an unexpected way: Can or should it be used for softball, too?

Gender equity in public education – including activities like sports – is governed by a federal statute known as Title IX.

About fifty parents, coaches, and students met informally with the Sitka school board Tuesday night (11-20-12) to share their opinions – and passions – about whether the new field has put the school district on the wrong side of Title IX.

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We haven’t had much snow to speak of in Sitka yet this winter, or even any deep cold, so baseball players have been getting in a little extra practice time – at night. At $2.6 million, with new synthetic turf and lights, Moller Field is the brightest thing on the Sitka waterfront. Someone landing at the Sitka airport recently said it was like flying in to Boston and looking down at Fenway.

But the very fact that the high school baseball team can practice at night, or practice any time the ground is clear is at the heart of a controversy that’s been simmering since even before the ribbon was cut on this field on Alaska Day: The girls softball team lacks this same opportunity.

Softball coach Bob Potrzuski says this is inequitable.

“After being around the new Moller for just a short period, the superiority is quite obvious from an operational point of view. On March 1 the boys could conceivably be outside practicing real skills in the appropriate setting, provided it is not covered with snow. Kimsham will be a muddy mess on March 1st at the very best, and for quite some time after that.”

Potzruski says the not-so-subtle message to girls in the high school is that they are not as valued as the boys, and that’s why the administration is treading carefully with Title IX.

Read the full text of the Title IX statute.

Baseball coach Ed Conway doesn’t see it that way at all.

“This whole issue, it’s kind of petty. Where we’ve got one team saying, Hey, your new field is better than my new field, so we want your new field. Then we get Title IX thrown at us, to be displaced off of our field and get the girls on.”

Displacing the boys is at the heart of the argument for most parents who spoke on behalf of the baseball team during the two-hour work session. In establishing equity, Title IX should not disadvantage one gender to create opportunity for the other.

However, Sitka superintendent Steve Bradshaw sought a legal opinion, and subsequently directed that the girls’ and boys’ teams split the use of field, both practice time and games. He doesn’t think Title IX is as nuanced as the baseball team advocates believe. He suggested that the argument fell apart if you looked at another sport that shares a facility, like basketball.

“I have no other alternative here but to request equal practice time and equal playing time on that field. If I told the girls (basketball team) they couldn’t practice in the high school gym, and that they’d have to practice in the Keet (elementary school) gym, I’d have a lawsuit on my hands.”

Notice that Bradshaw used the word “request.” He’s trying to create the equal opportunity required by Title IX. The school district doesn’t actually own Moller Field, nor does it own the relatively new Kimsham Complex, where the girls play. Both are city-owned. The $2.6 million reconstruction of Moller Field was funded by a state capital grant, so even the taxpayer has a stake in the issue.

And there are some other wrinkles. Softball and baseball fields are set up differently: A baseball pitcher stands on a mound, farther from home plate than a softball pitcher, who doesn’t use a mound. And the distances between the bases are different. One idea that was not disputed at the meeting was that – though possible – reconfiguring Moller from baseball to softball and back is no small matter.

Given the amount of strong feelings in the room, tensions were escalating. No one seemed ready to give an inch. That’s when the hammer dropped.

School board president Lon Garrison rapped his gavel abruptly on the table. He reminded the participants to be civil, and that they were there to break an impasse, not create one.

“I’m afraid of somebody filing a Title IX complaint, and all of the unintended consequences that will come of that. Because that’s not what this community is about, and never has been. We can’t afford to screw this up.”

Garrison said he was interested in sitting down with the affected parties and “giving it another shot.” He suggested that they settle on a short-term solution with an eye to fixing the problem in the long term.

Alaska School Activities Association director Gary Matthews, who attended the meeting as a consultant, agreed. He said the federal Office of Civil Rights considered a school’s efforts to address iniquities when it examined Title IX complaints. He suggested that Sitka push ahead constructively.

“To me the obvious solution is that you need to get the girls field into a better state. I saw both fields. If at one time the girls field was better than the boys, then you’ve already shown a history of improving things for the underrepresented sex.”

A future meeting was planned but not yet scheduled. One baseball parent after the work session seemed glad for the chance to express her views, but she cautioned that “Title IX is bigger than all of us.”