A request to bring softball to Laramie High School failed Wednesday after a 4-4 vote by the school board of Albany County School District No. 1.
Organizers of Laramie Girls Softball lobbied for the district to be the third in Wyoming to sign a letter committing to offer softball. The state needs eight high schools to agree to offer the softball in order for the Wyoming High School Activities Association to officially sanction the sport. Once eight high schools agree, the earliest the sport could begin is 2021.
Board members Tammy Johnson, Mark Bittner, Lawrence Perea and Nate Martin voted for the proposal.
The “no” votes came from Janice Marshall, Karen Bienz, Jason Tangeman and Beth Bear.
Three school districts in the state have already signed letters of support for softball — Rock Springs, Cody and Green River.
Gillette, Casper and Cheyenne are currently considering signing their own letters.
Perea and Bittner said approving the sport now would help take advantage of the groundswell of support.
Johnson, who’s advocated for girl’s sports throughout her time on the school board, became emotional as she told of her own struggle to participate in basketball while growing up in a town that only offered track and field.
Eventually, she did get the chance to play high school basketball. She went on to play DI college basketball and has coached Laramie High School girl’s basketball.
“I don’t want you to give up,” Johnson told the girls. “Breaking new ground for women’s sports has never been without growing pains and discouragement. Every time a group of young women like you resist the status quo and demands equal treatment, you move forward with opportunities for other young women.”
Adding a new varsity sport might be political fodder for more education cuts, but Martin still said approving the sport was still an important step.
“I believe in the citizen mandate — that when the people in your community come to you and ask you to do something, that you have the mandate to do what’s within your power to execute the will of the people,” Martin said.
Superintendent Jubal Yennie recommended the board not move forward with the proposal.
“Not right now,” he said.
He did say that, if the board voted to move forward, administrators would find a way to implement the new program.
“It’s a matter of setting priorities,” he said. “If this is a priority for the board, we can figure out how to fund this program. Every time we do these things, there are some trade-offs.”
With Wyoming’s two political parties — the House and Senate — currently fighting over $70 million in education funding, Tangeman said the timing of the vote was not ideal.
“The Legislature has made it clear that education is again going to be the fight this year, and I’m not sure who’s going to win,” he said.
He also said he worried offering softball could hurt other girls’ sports.
“I have some concerns about undermining our successful programs we already have right now,” he said.
The school board has not begun its budgeting discussions for the 2019-2020 school year. Board members voting against the proposal cited financial and political risks of adding a sport.
Marshall said, that if the district pursues pay raises for some employees and health insurance premiums rise as expected, the district could be facing upwards of $1 million in new personnel spending in the coming academic year — just as more education cuts will hit the district.
“We really have a lot to balance with technology, employees and our current sports that we have in place,” Marshall said. “I don’t want it to be ‘no’ forever, but I think there’s so much scrutiny on K-12 education spending right now, that it’s just not the right time. The optics would be so bad to add a sport at this time.”
Jason Pacheco, coach for Laramie Girls Softball, said the “no” vote by the school board was “basically just stomping some dreams.”
Pacheco said an early approval of the sport would help prepare the community to have a viable high school team by 2021.
“A ‘yes’ gives us hope, and it gives us time,” he said. “We know funding is going to be an issue. We can find fields. We can do what needs to be done, but it all starts with a ‘yes.’”
Fifteen people spoke in support of the proposal before the board voted, including Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken, who’s the mother of an 11-year-old involved in Laramie Girls Softball.
Kricken mentioned the positive correlation athletic opportunities have with girls’ self-esteem, athletic achievement, community involvement and avoidance of recreational drugs.
Kricken said her daughter Amanda is “as passionate about her sports and teammates as she is about her academics.”
“I’m so very proud of that, because in our family, we believe that physical fitness is as important to overall well-being as is mental fitness and emotional fitness,” Kricken said.
Laurel Ballard said that if LHS doesn’t offer the sport, her daughter Molly likely won’t play any high school sport. Because of the cost of participating in Laramie Girls Softball, Ballard said a school-sponsored league would ensure that more families can afford to have their daughters participate.
“I saw my daughter come alive when she started playing softball,” Ballard said. “This is her one sport. Her passion.”
Molly Ballard, like many of the girls who spoke Wednesday, currently needs to travel to Cheyenne to still play the sport.
“When I graduate high school, I want to play DI softball for the United States Military Academy,” the LMS eighth-grader said. “Through softball, I’ve learned grit and determination, which has taught me how to achieve my goal.”
Other girls who spoke mentioned the friendships they’ve made and the opportunities the sport has opened for them.
“Softball’s one of the greatest things that’s happened to me,” Paysen White said. “Not only have I found a team that I’ve grown close with, but I’ve found something that never fails to make me happy.”
More than 100 people attended the school board meeting Wednesday at ACSD No. 1’s central office. Those who couldn’t fit into the meeting room listened from the lobby or gathered in a conference room in the basement, where a live-stream was set up.
Girls dressed in their softball clothes and brought signs that read “I can only imagine playing high school softball in Laramie, Wyoming.”
The Wyoming High School Activities Association sanctioned an equal number of sports for boys and girls until 2010, when support for gymnastics was cut amid dwindling participation statewide.