Article updated at 3:35 a.m. Monday, Dec. 6:
A year after Free State High School took the 6A state title in gymnastics, the Lawrence school district has advanced a proposal to cancel the program at both high schools.
Hillary Jones, mother of a Lawrence High School gymnast, spoke through tears as she recounted receiving an email late Saturday afternoon from Coach Kat Farrow.
The email notified parents Farrow had learned of the district’s proposal to discontinue the program on Thursday during a meeting with Director of Secondary Schools Rick Henry and high school athletics directors/assistant principals Mike Gillman (LHS) and Amanda Faunce (FSHS).
An email from Farrow to parents read, “We have names and we WILL fight this.” During a subsequent phone interview, Farrow called the decision “extremely unfair” and said she was told the decision had already been made without recourse.
However, the Lawrence school board is expected to vote on the fate of the high schools’ gymnastics program at a future meeting, according to an email from district spokesperson Julie Boyle.
Jones said eliminating the sport would be “detrimental” to her daughter Ivori, fellow athletes and their coaches. Jones’ family moved to Lawrence from Oregon in 2012. Despite a three-year break blamed on burnout, Ivori dived back into gymnastics and made varsity her freshman year.
“It was a bit challenging to get back in the swing of things due to the time away, but she has been working hard to overcome those challenges and gaining her skills again,” Jones said.
As a varsity athlete again her sophomore year, the mother said, Ivori has gained strength mentally and physically. “To have the support not only in the gym but in the classroom, and honestly in all aspects of her life from the coaches, is what’s amazing for me to see as her mom. The team spirit all together is unmatchable to anything I have seen.”
Families in opposition to meet for strategy development
Jones, a mother of four, vowed she and other families would rally with coaches to fight the decision. Farrow confirmed the group would gather at 6:30 p.m. Monday at Lawrence Public Library’s Room C to discuss its strategy.
Meanwhile, Ivori, 15, said gymnastics had represented something she looked forward to each year.
“I’ve been getting better on my skills, and I wanted to make it to state again and actually place, but if it’s not going to be there next year, I won’t do that. The atmosphere with my teammates and the coaches is really enjoyable.”
Why gymnastics? Why now?
Jones questioned why the district singled out gymnastics — a sport dominated by girls and women. She asked why the district recently added a girls wrestling program, for example, if the district couldn’t afford an existing program such as gymnastics.
Boyle said in her email the district had been giving “this recommendation thoughtful consideration for several years.” She noted several factors had led to the proposal, including the following:
- Lack of “adequate designated space” for equipment storage, practices and competitions.
- Concerns about safety of staff whose duties including moving equipment as well as wear and tear on the equipment from multiple moves.
- Safety of existing equipment, which Boyle said “is in need of repairs and/or replacement.”
“Replacing the equipment would be costly and would not solve our concerns about adequate storage or the safety of staff having to move it. The combined estimated costs of coaching, needed equipment purchases, and transportation for the program are $32,000. This is more challenging because of the district’s current budget shortfall,” Boyle said.
But Farrow said she didn’t agree with that financial figure. She said the entire staffing for a year of coaches comes in at $10,000. “Nobody asked me. We’re not talking about upgrades. We’re not asking for that kind of a budget.”
Farrow’s been with the program six years, including the last three as head coach. She said she felt the team had been disrespected, having overcome adversity during an ongoing pandemic to win a state championship and earn all gold medals in 2020.
“We were completely sideswiped,” Farrow said. “It feels like they’re trying to cut low-hanging fruit but don’t understand the value of the fruit.”
Farrow noted the program employs one of only two Black women coaches in the district. And its team, she said, comprises students of color, the LGBTQ+ community and those with special needs, as well as members of low-income and military families.
Renting private space and using equipment at Jayhawk Gymnastics, Boyle added, had represented an appreciated partnership, but with space restrictions, the district couldn’t host events with other schools there, which Boyle called “a concern” of league competitors.
Farrow blamed the district, however, for being displaced by other sports and “mismanagement” of space and building funds, as well as bloating salaries for administrators.
Farrow said when she asked the district for a $200 replacement mat, for example, she was met with opposition. She added the program had a history of successful fundraising abilities but hadn’t been given an opportunity “to show we can earn the kind of publicity we can bring and basically pay for ourselves.”
Boyle said in her email the district had intended to communicate this recommendation prior to the fall season. “We have apologized to the families that this communication did not occur at that time as planned.”
“We truly appreciate the strong dedication of the student-athletes and Coach Farrow and Assistant Coaches (Jamie) Larsen and (Daneka) Vann. Prior to Coach Farrow’s start in the fall of 2019, the district had challenges finding qualified coaches to staff the program.”
Boyle said 22 students competed from both high schools this fall and noted gymnastics was not the “only athletic program with low participation numbers.”
According to Boyle, the Sunflower League has been mulling the future of high school gymnastics. She said there were only three 6A programs left in the league and 14 programs statewide.
According to the Kansas State High School Activities Association, there are 14 schools that have competing gymnastics teams. Those include the five Olathe high schools, five Shawnee Mission high schools, Emporia and Newton high schools in addition to LHS and FSHS.
The district has already studied the issue for compliance, Boyle added. “We have examined current participation opportunities for girls and boys in the district to ensure that the discontinuation of gymnastics does not pose a Title IX concern.”
“The administration understands that the discontinuation of the program may cause feelings of loss and frustration among the student-athletes, their families, and coaches. We want to acknowledge the hard work and success of the teams, the individual student-athletes, and the coaches. The district is committed to working with school families to explore other gymnastics opportunities available in our community.”
As of publication time, there was no agenda published yet for the school board’s next meeting, which is Dec. 13. An FSHS activities newsletter posted Sunday by Faunce did not mention gymnastics or an upcoming board vote.
Past gymnastics titles
According to information on KSHSAA’s website, Lawrence schools have taken the state title seven times since 1974. Brooke Kissinger led FSHS to consecutive state championships in 2013-14.
Kathy Johnson, executive director of finance, coached teams to championships three years in a row at LHS (2004-2006) and then at FSHS in 2009. Known as the district’s school budget expert and school finance guru, she plans to retire Jan. 31, 2022.
In a news release from the district on Nov. 19, Johnson said, “I also feel fortunate to have shared my passion for gymnastics with students at both high schools, coaching for many years. We have so many talented student athletes in this district.”
Johnson’s budget presentation to the board at its meeting Nov. 29 showed a budget shortfall of at least $2 million for the 2022-23 school year added to a $1.7 million deficit this school year.
Note: This article has been corrected — the date for the school board’s vote on the gymnastics program’s future had not been announced as of publication time.