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Liberty High transition team looks to build athletics community early

School won’t likely include varsity football in first year

IOWA CITY – The Liberty Lightning will strike a year early for some North Liberty student athletes.
The Liberty High School transition team outlined its plan for athletics for the Iowa City Community School District Board of Directors on Dec. 8. Under the plan, Liberty-bound students involved in athletics will be able to practice as Lightning Bolts in the 2016-17 school year—a full year before Liberty High School actually opens.
Matt Degner, the district’s director of schools, presented the update to the board.
Current Iowa City West High School freshmen and sophomores who live in North Liberty have the option to finish school at West instead of attending Liberty. Last month, the district distributed Letters of Intent asking whether these students planned to attend West or Liberty. With 67 percent of responses from all North Liberty underclassmen received, it was determined most students—around 75 to 80 percent—intend to stay at West. Of the current West underclassmen who indicated they might attend Liberty, 78 percent were freshmen. Most of those students have an athletic physical and a permission-to-practice form on file, suggesting they might participate in athletics.
Although the commitment is non-binding, district officials will use these numbers to plan athletics and other offerings.
Current 8th graders will attend West High for the 2016-17 year, then attend Liberty High in 2017-18. To help build community, the district plans to offer this class as many Liberty-identified sports teams as possible, even while they are still on West High’s campus, Degner said.
“I think it helps to establish school identity,” he said. “The more we can do for those students right away, to establish a school culture and to group students with the peers they’ll be attending school with, the better.”
Superintendent Stephen Murley said this procedure coincided with feedback the district received during the Liberty information meeting held last month, where North Liberty families gathered to hear a presentation and ask questions about the district’s plans for Liberty. Parents and students said they wanted opportunities to develop the Liberty community as quickly as possible.
Board President Chris Lynch said it would be great to have a third team for sports with high participation and increased cuts, such as soccer. With a Liberty team, more students overall will have room to participate.
The sports that will be split into Liberty/West teams next year include freshman football, volleyball, basketball, soccer, baseball and softball.
Soon-to-be Liberty students will continue to participate with West students in other sports, including freshman golf, swimming, cross country, track, wrestling, bowling and tennis.
The total cost of adding the Liberty teams next year is projected at $90,500. About $51,500 of that total would be equipment—an expense the district can expect to incur regardless of when Liberty sports actually start. The remaining $39,000 is for hiring coaches and officials, as well transportation, expenses that would start a year early. The money for athletics and activities comes out of the general fund.
Once the freshman class from 2016-17 proceeded to Liberty as sophomores, new Liberty teams would be formed for cross country, wrestling and track.
Since outdoor athletic spaces are being built over time, some Liberty students might continue to participate in sports at West, such as golf, swimming, bowling and tennis.
The district’s goal is to create a “great experience” for student athletes, Degner said. In planning, officials are using “matching and equating” methods to plan teams, in which students are assigned fairly according to age, physical maturity and skill level.
District football was the most urgent decision before the board on Dec. 8. Directors needed to decide this month whether Liberty would register a varsity football team for Mississippi Valley Conference scheduling in 2017-18. Degner said the consensus on the Liberty task force was that varsity football would not be a safe environment and could not provide a truly “great experience” to student athletes in the first year.
Since most North Liberty-residing sophomores plan to stay at West, Liberty will be home to few seniors in its first year. As a result, a varsity football team would likely comprise mostly freshmen, sophomores and juniors, which would create safety concerns if they competed with seniors from other schools. Individual sports like wrestling or cross country will be considered differently than contact sports like football, Degner said.
Although no vote was made, board members seemed aligned with the task force, agreeing that varsity football should not start in Liberty’s first year due to those safety concerns.
In 2018-19, with full classes at Liberty, varsity teams should be available in most sports, Degner said.
Now that tentative plans are set for the time-sensitive matter of athletics, next up in the decision-making process are academic and extracurricular offerings, which the task force will present at a future board meeting.