TOLONO – The school gyms in the Unit 7 district are popular places for all kinds of afterschool activity – maybe too popular.
On Feb. 22, at the last public meeting of the Unit 7 school district, Athletic Director Scott Hamilton said that school physical fitness facilities – particularly Unity Junior High's Rocket Center – were increasingly being booked by nonschool organizations.
"Our facilities are becoming used all the time," Hamilton said at the meeting. "Some of these groups are for-profit.
"I see this really snowballing," he said. "I've got to have some guidelines."
Hamilton asked the board to help him come up with a policy that is fair to school organizations as well as other groups wanting to use the facilities.
"This is a very tough thing, because we've got people who feel like they've paid for these facilities," said school board member Doug Rund.
Hamilton and other administration and board members also wanted to ensure that the school facilities would be well-maintained and that children in the schools would be supervised at all times.
After some discussion, board members resolved to give coaches and other school personnel time to discuss the matter and come up with a policy proposal regarding the use of school facilities. In the interim between meetings, board members decided temporarily not to allow nonschool organizations to use the facilities, with the exception of a regional wrestling tournament that was already in the scheduling process.
They said they would discuss that proposal at the next school board meeting, coming up at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the administrative office in Tolono.
Since the February meeting, coaches and staff discussed the matter, and board member Paul Lewis said he thought the issue had been resolved. It is not on the school board agenda for March 29. School board Chairman Fred Koss did not return calls for comment on the issue.
According to Rund, discussion of facilities use focused on what people felt was best for the students. "I think what we've done in the past and probably the direction that we're gonna try to stay on," he said, "is if there are activities that are involving our kids ... and they're the ones that are participating in them, we're gonna try to make the facility available."
Lewis said that those local groups would also need to let all of the kids in an eligible age group or the district participate. "To use our facilities, it'd have to be inclusive," he said. "We don't want to discourage kids from being active."
They do, however, want to look at the amount of off-season time some groups want in the facility, particularly in the peak winter months.
The move could affect a nonschool summer basketball league called the American Youth Basketball Tour.
Mike Sturgeon is a four-time AYBT coach, not coaching this year. "AYBT is very laid-back, anybody that wants to play can play. It's not like you have tryouts and cut kids," he said. "There's no winners, there's no trophy, there's no hoopla. They're just playing basketball."
There are, however, many months of practice and play.
Sturgeon said the team usually starts training in mid-March when the school's season is over. He said tournaments generally run from the end of May until the end of July. During some of that time, the program has used Unity gyms without a fee, but with the understanding that school activities have first priority.
Of the new plan, Rund said, "what we're going to do is provide open gym time and times for practice for summer leagues for our kids, like we have in the past, only they won't be practicing for summer ball in December."
Sturgeon said that even if practice times in the gyms are fewer, he believes the team would still be dedicated and its players would still show up whenever they were allowed. Both he and Rund said that their first priority was the children's welfare.
"The whole emphasis of what we're trying to do here is have high school coaches discuss with our assistant coaches and administrators ... what kind of programs are going to be beneficial to our kids," Rund said.
"They've met and put things in perspective and I imagine we'll approve of that agreement," said Lewis.
Lewis said that for organizations involving mostly nondistrict people, like an area volleyball league, there will most likely be a charge for their use.
Diane Deters is a district-area softball coach, Tolono Park District soccer coordinator and mother of five children, two currently in Unity High School. She agreed that the public should get to use the gym, but said the district should put limits on it.
"Basketball is taking away a lot from the other sports, and that's what (school representatives) are trying to get away from," she said.
Asked to confirm the policy proposal, district Superintendent Michael Shonk, declined to comment.
Shonk provided a copy of the district's policy, which stated: "School facilities are available to the community for education, civic, cultural and other noncommercial uses consistent with public interest when such use does not interfere with the school program or school-sponsored activities."
The policy, adopted in 2002, required Shonk to develop procedures for the use of the facilities.
The News-Gazette has filed a request under the Illinois Freedom of Information Act for those procedures.
If some teams are restricted in practicing in the facilities, Deters believes dedicated athletes will still reach their potential.
"If (students) want to, they'll just find other places," she said. "We've got a driveway with a basketball rim."