Q&A: Tom Arensdorf talks how leagues and classifications are formed

Tom Arensdorf

Tom Arensdorf

Tom Arensdorf is the chair of the Classification and League Organizing Committee (CLOC). That committee sets and creates alignment for two-years cycles in all sports -- except for football, which is handled by that sport's committee.

Currently the superintendent of Arriba-Flagler Consolidated School District No. 20, he served as the president for what is now the CHSAA Board of Directors from 2001-03.

Next week, CLOC will meet to set the 2014-16 alignment. We caught up with Arensdorf to get an overview of how CLOC works and look towards potential changes in the future.

What are some of the biggest challenges you deal with on the CLOC?

"Colorado is a state that is going in two directions with enrollment. Outside the I-25 corridor in the Front Range, enrollments continue to decline. So we see more and more schools needing to move down a classification because they've lost enrollment. While in the Front Range area, enrollments are increasing, and more schools are being built. Typically, when they build a new school nowadays, they model it over a plan that would have about a 1,600 population for a high school. That puts them up into the 4A bracket when the start. Or some of them start out with just one class, then they add a class every year. But very quickly, they're up in the 4A or even 5A levels.

"We're going in both directions. And the economy affects the enrollments in private schools almost more than it does in public schools. When the economy was down, we saw a lot of the smaller private schools struggling and close. In the meantime, it seems like some of the bigger, maybe more affluent private schools have flourished as they've picked up enrollment from other schools. Some of the longtime private schools that were strong members like Denver Christian and Denver Lutheran were around forever, and Christian's had to go down a classification, Lutheran's closed now [after combining with Lutheran-Parker].

"Schools, as groups, kind of take [league alignment] on their own. They'll get together and have discussions and come up with a plan. You know, 'We want to create a league out of these schools' – maybe because enrollment changes or schools open up. And they have to bring those plans to us. There's a process they have to go through if they're leaving a league or if they are potentially getting into a league. Usually, it kind of takes care of itself, but sometimes, some schools aren't a great fit for a league, and people don't want them. We have to, if a league will not accept them, then we'll have to make a decision and place them into a league."

How do you go about doing that? Do you try and look at geography, or is it a combination? If you are forced to put a team into a league, what are the factors you look at?

"Well, geography's certainly one. In the metro area, it's not quite as big a deal, because schools are so close together that travel's not that big of an issue. But in outlying areas, you try and consider geography. [Other factors are] competition and competitive balance, having like programs. Say it's a 5A or 4A school and they have all the programs like lacrosse, swimming and all those different kinds of things, they want to be in a league that also has those types of sports."

Schools have to go to a league meeting in order to be accepted into that league. Is that right?

"They have to petition to a league and try and get the league's blessing to have them come in. They also have to petition their own league and ask to leave the league. If you had a league of seven schools, and all of a sudden, three of them decided they wanted to leave that league, it becomes a league of four, and that doesn't work.

"But usually schools do a pretty good job of researching where's a good fit for them, or why they want to make that change. It's not a sudden event. They may be looking at that for a year or two, so the schools that maybe are going to be left in that league, they may go look to join up with another league or something like that. Sometimes leagues totally get disbanded.

"The main issue that people have nowadays is they want to try and compete against schools, at some point or another, that they're probably going to be facing in their districts or regionals. … Schools want to have some semblance of who they're going to be competing against if they have the type of program that's going to be competing in the upper echelon of that sport. They want the opportunity to play against some of those teams before they get into those playoffs."

I know you take everything into account, but are classifications and leagues, by-and-large, based on basketball?

"Yeah, because that's the sport that almost every school has. When we're looking at, if there's 70 schools in 1A, pretty much everyone plays basketball and volleyball. They may not have track or they may not have some other sports. Football and basketball, pretty much everybody has and participates in. But football has a whole different set of numbers."

The biggest change (to the classification system) for the next cycle is that there's not going to be a set number for 1A and 2A. Instead, it's going to be a split down the middle. Do you have an idea yet of where that might be?

"We'll decide that at the meeting. What's happening with some of the very small schools is a lot of them are forming co-ops, so they have they have enough to have a team. So you have to count two of those schools as one. I've been looking at some numbers there, and it looks like there's probably going to be about 68 teams in each classification.

"When we decided to do the split in the middle, people thought it was going to lower that [enrollment] number. Eight or 10 kids may not seem like a lot, but when you're one of those bubble schools, it is. As more teams have co-oped together, [the new split] may not make that much of a difference. We'll just have to see.

"There will be some schools there that will ask to play down a classification. We implemented a bylaw – it's probably been 10 years now – that if a school, in a certain sport, meets the criteria of winning less than 25 percent of their games in the last four seasons, they can petition to play down a classification. So if some teams would petition out of 3A to play down into 2A, and that is granted, then it will add more teams into that pool."

Is that a hard-and-fast, 'If they hit this number,' they'll be approved to play down?

"Yeah. We usually approve it. It's worked really well for a couple of schools in certain sports that have been able to kind of get their numbers going again and get their programs to go back up. It hasn't worked for everybody. But they don't get beat up as bad, especially in football."

So you guys approve play-downs for football, too?

"Yes. We approve all the play-downs."

Now, lacrosse is kind of a different animal, and I know there are other sports like that. Is that another challenge of trying to match different programs up?

"In those kind of sports, that usually goes back to that sport's committee for a recommendation. Sports like lacrosse, when they first started up, there may have been only 14 or 15 schools playing lacrosse. So everybody that played lacrosse was in one classification. Well, as the sport has grown – and we see that in soccer, in cross country – and maybe more smaller schools have decided to add that program, we had too many schools for one classification. … The [sport’s] committee usually will come and say, 'We have too many schools for one classification, we need to make a split.' And usually they'll make a recommendation to us on where to make that split."

This is down the line, but a lot of talk has centered on potentially adding Class 6A. What are your thoughts on adding another classification?

"I really don't feel strongly about it one way or another. We had six classifications at one time. There are some people that think the more classifications you have, you kind of water down whatever sport it might be.

"There are probably 80 schools that have less than 100 kids in school. We added 1A track a few years ago. Honestly, there are probably 50 1A schools that don't even have 50 kids in school. And they don't field a complete track team. Sometimes, you'll have events, like relay teams and stuff like that, that, honestly, there are some pretty poor teams in those events. Just not enough manpower to create great relay teams for that many schools. So you get some criticism that way, that we water things down.

"On the other hand, when you look at classifications, there is two ways to look at it: Is it more fair to have the same number of schools in each classification, so we're all competing against 65 schools for that state championship? Or is it more fair that you shouldn't have to compete against anybody that's more than two-and-a-half times bigger than you? So we've kind of gone both ways, trying to be middle of the road.

"At one time, 3A only had about 35 schools in it. At that time, a lot of those were private schools, and they had enrollments of about 600. The public schools, they're not going to operate a public school that small. You get more bang for your buck if you have 1,200 or 1,600 kids. So there's not a lot of schools that size. But [those private schools] were too big to participate against 2A schools that would have maybe 235 kids at the top enrollment. So 3A wasn't very big, and it caught a lot of angst among the lower classifications or the ones above them that 3A was having 35 schools compete for a basketball championship, and 1A and 2A were having 70.

"So you have those two ways of looking at how to set up classifications. If you add a classification, you can narrow that enrollment gap so you don't have a school of 100 having to play against a school of 300 kids, or a school of 600 playing against a school that has 1,500. That's really what adding a classification would do, shrink some of that enrollment gap within each classification.

"You're going to have outsiders like Cherry Creek. No one else is near that big. And you have high schools with 13 kids. They'll still have a basketball team."

What are some of the things the CLOC committee now faces on a regular basis?

"Over the last decade, the disparity in the direction that enrollments are going has really changed as rural and non-Front Range schools, their enrollments continue to decline. There are lots of schools that are playing 2A basketball and volleyball and all those things that were really strong 3A schools, say, 18 years ago. That's hard for a guy that's been a 2A school to swallow: All of a sudden, here's all these schools that used to be in 3A now in my classification.

"In football, there have been lots of [1A] teams that have gone down to 8-man and 8-man teams that have to go down to 6-man. That never feels right for those people that have never had to compete against those bigger schools.

"Then on the other end, there are just more and more 5A schools being created and enrollments continue to increase in those urban areas and metro areas. So, the bigger the spread, the more issues it causes."

Big-picture, what changes do you see?

"[A committee commissioned by assistant commissioner Bud Ozzello] has looked into lots of different things and studied a lot of other states, methodologies that they use to set their classifications. So things like factors you can put in, maybe a poverty factor. It's very clear that schools of poverty have way less participation than schools that don't face poverty. The participation isn't the same.

"There's a huge debate, and there has been for a long time in Colorado, because our private schools play with public schools. And there's not a factor for being a private school. There's no secret there that private schools have done very well in the last two decades, and there's always the idea that private schools can "recruit." Private schools have to recruit students, that's how they get students to come to their schools, they're paying to be there. So, for private schools, it's very competitive to get kids to come to their schools. … And most of those schools don't have a poverty factor, and they probably don't have a special needs population. They're not required by law to have federal special-ed programs. So a lot of people don't think that their enrollment numbers are equitable to a public school enrollment number."

There was a similar bylaw considered last Legislative Council meeting, wasn't there?

"What they looked at was a success factor. And, honestly, the way the bylaw was written, by the time it went into effect – say I'm a small private school in 2A, and I have a group of four boys that are stallions and we win basketball and maybe we do really good in baseball because I have these really good athletes that can carry a program. Well, by the time they [would have had] to change classification, those kids would all be out of school. And, in smaller schools, even up to 3A, you can go from the penthouse to the outhouse in a couple of years.

"That's what that looked at, if they had so much success, they would have had to move up a classification. It wouldn't have worked very well. It was probably good that it didn't pass.

"But that committee that Bud's been working with on this classification question, they're looking at some of those different factors, like poverty. It could be that at some point, there is more of a formula to determine your enrollment number rather than just taking a set number from [the Colorado Department of Education]. We use those CDE numbers because that's how schools are funded, based on your population, and so no one's going to cheat on that. They want all the money they can get."

[Creating an enrollment formula] would take a bylaw change, wouldn't it?

"Yes, it would."

Would that come from you guys, or the membership?

"Our committee might write the bylaw and send it to the membership, or the Board of Directors might write that bylaw and send it to us to see what we think about it, and we could pass it forward to the Legislative Council to see if they think it would work for our organization.

"Classification numbers are always a hot topic, because everybody wants to feel like they're getting a fair shot. … The emotional factor of changing leagues and classifications is pretty huge in some situations."