Officials from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School joined forces with a determined group of student athletes this week to fight the recent decision by the South Coast athletic conference to remove several Vineyard sports teams from its ranks.
The Vineyard school is mounting a double-barreled effort, lobbying mainland officials for support while mulling a legal challenge to the removal.
On Wednesday, principal Margaret (Peg) Regan, athletic director Mike Joyce and eight student athletes traveled across Buzzards Bay on the New England Fast Ferry to meet with New Bedford mayor Scott W. Lang and plead their case for keeping the Vineyard in the South Coast conference.
"We have every right to play in a league as anyone else," said senior Tony Grillo before leaving on the boat for New Bedford. A standout on the high school golf team, Grillo won last year's Massachusetts Junior Championships.
Mr. Lang reportedly was sympathetic to the Island cause during Wednesday's meeting, and said he would help in any way he could.
Meanwhile, school officials this week explored the possibility of some type of legal action against the conference unless its members reconsidered their decision to remove the Vineyard from the league, or, at the very least, explain their decision in more detail.
The South Coast Conference is led by the principals and the athletic directors of its nine schools: Seekonk, Apponequet, Dighton-Rehoboth Regional, Wareham, Bourne, Joseph Case, Fairhaven, Old Rochester and Greater New Bedford Technical.
The conference in 2005 voted to include the Vineyard on a two-year trial basis as an associate member, a move that was widely viewed as a formality before the conference voted to include the Island on a permanent basis.
On Jan. 11, the athletic directors of the conference unanimously voted to allow the Vineyard to remain in the conference. But when the principals of the conference met later that same day, they voted 5-3 to terminate the Vineyard's membership, effective at the end of the current school year.
Before the vote was taken, the principals agreed that Ms. Regan should not participate in the vote, and asked her to leave the room.
The vote baffled many Island officials, who questioned why the principals split with the athletic directors and why Ms. Regan was not allowed to participate in the vote.
Associate member status allowed the Vineyard boys' and girls' soccer, field hockey, boys' and girls' basketball, boys' ice hockey, baseball and softball teams to play in a league for the first time in several years.
Prior to 2005, those teams were independents, meaning school officials had to scramble each year to find teams from a variety of conferences willing to accept an at-large bid to play the Vineyard.
In recent weeks, school officials have suggested the decision would have been discriminatory or even illegal on the grounds that it violated the Vineyard's athletes' federally protected right to participate in sports on the same level as other athletes. Officials have also questioned whether the conference violated open meeting laws when the principals asked Ms. Regan to leave the room during the January vote.Sean P. Sweeney, legal counsel to the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School and the school committee, sent a strongly worded letter to South Coast Conference president Linda Enos last month demanding that the Vineyard's request for a re-vote be considered or the decision be explained in more detail.
Mr. Sweeney writes in his letter that both Ms. Regan and superintendent James Weiss have written to various members of the conference in an attempt to better understand the rationale for the decision and to seek reconsideration of the decision.
"To date, my client has not received even the courtesy of a response from you as president of the conference, despite the passage of over a month since the vote and her correspondence with you," Mr. Sweeney writes.
Mr. Sweeney also states that he made a cursory review of the conference by-laws and determined the vote likely was invalid. Associate membership, he writes, carries with it voting rights, which were not afforded to Ms. Regan when the conference principals asked her to leave the room. The by-laws require written advance notice of the reasons for any proposed exclusion from the conference.
"Obviously, no such consideration was given to the impact that the exclusion vote would have on the student athletes enrolled at Martha's Vineyard Regional High School," Mr. Sweeney writes.
Mr. Sweeney also suggests the conference may have violated the state's open meeting laws when it excluded Ms. Regan from the vote and asked her to leave the room, and includes a not-so-subtle threat of legal action against the conference unless its members reconsider.
"I have been asked to consider whether the exclusion of my client from the conference is actionable as unlawful discrimination," Mr. Sweeney concludes.
Mr. Sweeney's letter was distributed to members of the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Committee at their regular meeting Monday night.
Prior to traveling to New Bedford on Wednesday, Ms. Regan said she would continue to fight for the Vineyard to remain in the conference.
"Right now, I have students who want answers as to why they can't play in a league, and I don't have the answers," she said. "The only thing I've heard is that some people don't like their kids taking a boat [to play in games], and that is not a satisfactory explanation. I could just as easily turn around and say I don't like my kid riding in a car or in a bus."
Ms. Regan noted that the Vineyard pays for all the travel costs for visiting teams and last year paid $33,000 in ferry fees to bring teams here from the mainland. The district also has an agreement with the Steamship Authority and New England Fast Ferry requiring the boats to wait for visiting teams no matter how late games go, she said.
The contingent of student athletes shared in their principal's frustration as they prepared to take the trip to New Bedford.
"If you're going to say we can't stay in your league, at least give us a reason why," added Matt Seklecki, a member of the cross country team.
David Campbell, a member of the soccer team, said the conference's decision not to keep the Vineyard in the league could have a financial impact on student athletes.
"Recruiters will look to see if you were an all-star in your conference [when they consider scholarships]," he said. "And sometimes recruiters only have time to attend all-star games."
After the group returned from their trip late Wednesday afternoon, Mr. Joyce said the meeting went well. The group met with Mayor Lang and his top aide, who listened to their concerns. The mayor said he would use whatever influence he had to encourage the principals at New Bedford Regional High School and Fairhaven High School to reconsider their decision, Mr. Joyce said.
Mr. Joyce said officials would continue to seek allies in their fight, and would not go quietly into the proverbial good night.
"You can only be ignored so long before you start to shout," Mr. Joyce said.