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Finding the way with no winners or losers

DonAt Left: Donnie Kendall and At Right: Ryan Helton.

By Elaine Owen, Editor ~~

When parents, coaches and school administrators work together to benefit kids

Parents of Fannin County students spoke during public comments at the Jan. 11 Board of Education meeting with concerns about the sports program. Their concerns were heard by a few parents, the school board, the administration, the coaches and the media.
First reactions came quickly, with seven people contacting the Fannin Sentinel, each with their individual experience and perception of the sports programs in Fannin County schools. They needed to be heard. And the administration and coaches needed an opportunity to tell their side.
The quest for a common ground that would benefit all those involved was complicated. However, the common thread that was prevalent in this continuing story is that all entities agree on one thing: they all want what’s best for the kids.
At the meeting, parent DonAt
Left: Donnie Kendall and At Right: Ryan Helton.
nie Kendall said, “We have a culture that has been accepted and embraced–a losing culture, and it’s considered the norm. If we continue to accept mediocrity as being good enough, then your endeavors will always be mediocre.”
Kendall stated that parents are told that Fannin County is a small, rural school that does not attract or produce athletes like areas with a larger population.
“This is simply not true,” Kendall stated, pointing to Union County as an example. This county is smaller and just as rural but manages to play in the same AAA region as Fannin with much better results, he maintains.
Kendall spoke to the disparity in salary and performance correlation of assistant principal and athletic director Dr. Scott Ramsey. He said, “We have an athletic director who makes $93,000 to run these programs, whose job ends at 4:30 so he can go to his second job while different administrators are asked to cover for him on a regular basis.”
While this statement is basically true, a closer look shows that the salary is consistent with surrounding counties and the second job mentioned is as one of the two principals at the Mountain Education Charter High School that is open four evenings a week.
The discontent from Kendall, another parent who spoke to the board at the January meeting, and those who spoke to the Fannin Sentinel was in part directed at the salary of the athletic director and the performance of the teams.

Kendall said, “They all finish dead last in their regions almost every year.”
It wasn’t all criticism. Kendall interspersed his concerns with praise for the community and the parents in supporting their kids and the athletic programs, specifically mentioning that the booster club consistently raises $30,000 to $50,000 a year.
However, Kendall’s frustration was heard in his next statement, “I think it may be time for the community to match the effort of our administration and our coaches and suspend some of our fundraising.”
Ryan Walton was another parent who told the school board that he wanted to see changes in Fannin’s sports program. His frustration was felt in his first statement, “My hope is that we will get coaches here that will play to win instead of letting parents influence who plays and who starts…when we do that, we’ll have a better result.”
Speaking of his son, Walton said, “He should play because he’s good enough not for what I do for that team.”
Other issues mentioned were (1) young athletes being asked to choose one sport as their primary and the coaches lack of flexibility for students who want to participate in multiple activities and (2) the practice of Fannin’s coaches starting with a team in middle school and moving up with that team to high school.
Walton passionately ended his comments with, “Something needs to change. I’m tired of losing. Our kids deserve better. I know mine do. We’re paying people a lot of money not to do their job.”
After the meeting, this reporter sat down with Supt. of Schools Dr. Michael Gwatney, who was clearly troubled by the comments made at the meeting.
“I’ve talked to a lot of parents and I’ve tried to be very present at events. I want to be present because I want to support our kids, first and foremost. I enjoy the notion of community—not only in athletics but we are first and foremost teachers—and this is about school. Extracurricular has the potential and does provide wonderful opportunities for kids. When I came into this I viewed extracurricular primarily through the lens of events where I was a parent. I’m thinking of events where (daughter) Lora played Rec ball, basketball and Rec soccer and ran cross country for the Middle School. When I was in Middle School, we didn’t have cross country so that’s something our administration has worked to expand at the Middle School level, to provide those opportunities for Middle School kids. And, of late, it was Lora in the band. So as Superintendent of Schools and responsible for ALL programs, I’m also a band parent.
“As a band parent, I go to all the football games. No matter what we’re doing, I want to see opportunities for ALL the kids to succeed. I think there are those who take issue of the scores at the games. I would contend that whether it’s been a valuable experience or not is a variety of factors, many that are beyond the scoreboard—whether it’s meaningful or worthwhile.
“As I attend these events, I’ve been hearing from some folks of this issue. Then, at the board meeting…when I look at this, when I get these reports, of course I take it seriously. I have to look into these matters to see if there’s merit, and that’s where I am right now—is attempting to assess.
“Basically, the question you asked me is the question I am trying to answer…because I have sat in this very room and talked to parents and grandparents…and I have listened to parents tell me (and this is what makes it tough), I’ve had parents tell me that this is a fine program that teaches kids a great deal of meaningful and valuable skills to be applied in life. And I’ve had parents that have expressed concerns. And I’ve investigated those concerns.
“I think my role right now is to continue to assess and try to keep at the forefront of my assessment, ‘How is this helping kids and what can we do differently?’ That’s where I’m at.”
Athletic Director Dr. Scott Ramsey started school in Morganton in fourth grade and went through the seventh grade at East Fannin. He came back to Fannin County six years ago to coach and direct Fannin County sports programs.
Ramsey was not at the January meeting where parents aired concerns about sports in Fannin County schools. However, it didn’t take long for him to hear about the comments and he agreed to address them.
Referencing the comment that “we’re not a winning team…and only won two games this season…” Ramsey was asked if this is unusual.
“No, it’s not,” he said, “we’ve had winning seasons and we’ve had losing seasons. Let’s talk about size. We’re the third smallest AAA school in the state. Every school in our region, except for GAC (Greater Atlanta Christian) has over 100 more kids than we do; some have 200-300 more. GHSA has a 4-year cycle so we actually have two schools in our region that are AAAA schools but they’re getting to stay in our region because of
the 4-year cycle. So our AAA school is actually playing two AAAA schools. Schools are classified for a reason and numbers do matter, especially in a sport like football where it takes so many to play. We do have very good athletes in Fannin, but depth is what hurts us. If we lose a key player, we don’t have someone sitting on that bench who can just come in and take their place. So, depth is a factor in our size and it hurts us in competing with larger schools.
“Union County, which was mentioned, is going back down to AA (determined by FTE-Full Time Enrollment numbers).”
Some of the complaints about the athletic program concerned those numbers. Three of the seven people who spoke to the Fannin Sentinel said (basically), “We should get rid of the charter school, it just runs up our numbers.”
Ramsey was asked about determining FTE numbers; if the charter school in Fannin (Mountain Education Charter High School) counted in the numbers and “put us into AAA.”
He said, “No…if those students stayed at the high school, they would count in the FTE numbers. That’s a completely different school system and does not count.
“There’s 83 students difference in us (Fannin) and Union County, so we’re closer in size than other schools. But they (Union County) opted to go up (to AAA). Once they played in AAA a few years and saw what it was like, they decided to go back down. They didn’t make the state playoffs—they won two more games than we did.”
Ramsey addressed the perception voiced by some parents that “the kids are being taught that it’s okay to lose.” Parents say it’s okay to lose but you go back the next game and win. They would like that to be the focus.

DonAt Left: Donnie Kendall and At Right: Ryan Helton.
At Left: Donnie Kendall and At Right: Ryan Helton.

“Our coaches work hard. I don’t know that we can change people’s opinion (and that is an opinion). I know that no coach has ever told any player that it’s okay to be mediocre; it’s okay to lose. They’re out there working, trying to find ways to be successful. When you deal with a lack of success on the scoreboard, you continue to find ways to keep the kids upbeat—you want to find successes—so that they know we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing and we’ve just got to keep working. We have found that kids who play sports have a better sense of teamwork, a stronger will to achieve their goals, to overcome failure. These are things that will help them in life. My hope is that even though we are not always a winning team, we get right back out there, and we play to win the next time. That just because we lose a game doesn’t mean we’re losers.
“That’s what our coaches do. As an example, Coach Pavao comes in at 6:30 a.m. and starts working out with kids who can’t take weight training during the day. Once the spring sports are over, he brings the Middle School kids over after school. Our coaches do 4-on-1 workouts.”
He hesitated, then continued, “Part of the time, what we get caught up in is with a school our size, coaches have to coach multiple sports sometimes. And that cuts down on their ability to do 4-on-1 workouts during the off season. GHSA allows you to work out with four athletes at a time during the off season; anything above that is an illegal workout (anything above that is considered a practice session). It’s sometimes difficult for coaches to get 4-on-1 workouts in during the off season because they coach multiple sports.”
It’s important to remember that in Fannin County, everyone who coaches is a teacher, first and foremost. And to dispel a rumor that one of the coaches only teaches one class; Ramsey replied, “That is absolutely incorrect. We don’t have any coaches who teach less than three classes.”
The resounding message from Dr. Gwatney and Dr. Ramsey is this: Every coach in the school system wants each student to be safe and successful; to create situations of success and playing each one as they are ready for the particular sport of their interest.
Dr. Gwatney said, “I always try to measure every situation as a parent. And I look and think how I would feel if my child was in that situation. That’s always my measure—as a parent.”
Dr. Ramsey added, “I had a coach tell me one time that there’s a natural conflict built in between parents and coaches because ‘coaches watch the kid with their head and a parent watches the kid with their heart.’
“I always tell parents that you’re supposed to be your child’s biggest fan and I never have a problem with a parent who wants to advocate for their child. But we all have to remember that coaches have to make decisions objectively, based on what’s best for the team and what’s best for the kid (performance, safety) and parents will always be their kids’ biggest fans—and that’s the way it should be. We all have a stake in seeing our kids be successful—that’s our job and one we will always take seriously.”
Ramsey pointed to the success of some of Fannin County’s students, mentioning that several will be signing next month. Others who have received athletic scholarships include:
2014: Cody McPeek – Georgetown College, Daniel Lang – Lagrange College.
2015: Jack Roper – Reinhardt, Tyler Jones – Reinhardt.
2016: Cooper Earls – Mount Saint Joe, Andrew Pavao – Reinhardt.
Jacob Reese – Carson Newman, River Dixon – Shorter.
Dylan Breedlove – Manchester, Hunter Davis – Manchester.
2017: Luke Cowart – Rhodes, Cody Jacobs – Undecided but has visit to Mount Saint Joe, Cole Earls – Undecided but has visit to Mount Saint Joe, Drake Green – Undecided but has visit to Kentucky Christian.
After talking to parents, the school superintendent and the athletic director, one thing is apparent: they all want what’s best for their kids. While each has a role in their kids’ winning and success, their roles are different and sometimes complicated. Parents should attend as many games as possible and be supportive yet allow the coaches to do their jobs and their kids to find their own solutions (when they can). They shouldn’t feel the need to come to their rescue at every (imagined) crisis. They should continue to make positive comments even when the team is struggling. And help kids understand that life is about winning and losing–that when we lose, we get back out there and try our best to win the next time.
School administration and coaches want a winning team. But more than that, they want kids to be safe and successful. They want kids to feel that they can talk to them, and if the kids have problems and need help in sports or other school situations, they can talk to their coach, their teachers, and they will be heard.