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CIML’s future on shaky ground

Fort Dodge among 10 schools discussing potential alliance in newly-formed conference

Fort Dodge’s 29-year relationship with the Central Iowa Metro League could be approaching a crossroads.

A letter penned by Marshalltown Community School District superintendent Theron J. Schutte confirmed that 10 of the 19 current CIML schools have recently considered ending their long-standing conference membership to form a new alliance, possibly as soon as the 2022-23 academic year.

Fort Dodge is among the schools listed by Schutte, along with Marshalltown, Mason City, Ames, Ottumwa, Des Moines Lincoln, Des Moines Roosevelt, Des Moines East, Des Moines Hoover and Des Moines North. The letter — first obtained and reported by Matthew Bain of the Des Moines Register on Monday morning — was sent to the superintendents and athletic directors of all 10 institutions, announcing Marshalltown’s intentions to withdraw with the understanding that the other districts would follow suit.

Fort Dodge Community School District superintendent Dr. Jesse Ulrich confirmed on Monday that plans and alternatives have been discussed, though “everything is still in the preliminary stages on our end.”

“We’ve been negotiating, yes,” Ulrich said. “We have to stay on top of this situation for the future of our kids and our district. That’s the most important point to emphasize here: we’re trying to do what’s best for us, and also, the relationships we’ve established with a number of these schools — past, present and into the future.

“The CIML has been a vital chapter in our athletic and extra-curricular history book here at Fort Dodge. But our competitive tradition with the folks in Mason City, Marshalltown or Ames, for instance, dates back much further than the last 25 or 30 years. If they leave the CIML, and our choice is to decide between staying with the suburban Des Moines schools or continuing our history with our main rivals, we have to be practical and realistic about our best fit.”

Ulrich added “more information and points of view are being internally sought” from coaches and parents in the district. The plan is to make a proposal at the next FDCSD school board meeting on March 8.

“We won’t have a decision at that point, per se, but we’ll definitely talk about where we stand and provide an update,” Ulrich said. “We just need to walk through the specifics, gather feedback, and be diligent in our efforts. It’s important to have a vision with honesty and transparency moving forward.

“I anticipate making a recommendation one way or another by the end of the month.”

When Fort Dodge joined the CIML in 1992, it was the ninth-largest school in the 16-team league with a grade 9-12 enrollment of 1,219. Johnston was in Class 3A at the time with 653 students in grades 9-12. Waukee was 2A at 288.

There are 18 schools currently in the conference. Newton and Indianola are no longer members. Ankeny split in 2013-14. Johnston joined in 1998-99; Waukee in 2006-07.

Fort Dodge currently ranks 15th in enrollment, with around 1,100 students at FDSH. West Des Moines Valley, Waukee, Johnston and Southeast Polk now house over 2,000 students in their respective high schools, and both Ankenys are rapidly approaching a similar number.

Size hasn’t been the only issue in trying to compete with Valley, Waukee, Johnston, Southeast Polk, West Des Moines Dowling, Urbandale and the two Ankenys, though. Resources continue to widen the gap. According to a spreadsheet shared with Ulrich, the 10 athletic departments considering a move accrued an overall winning percentage of .165 — 376 wins and 1,899 losses — in volleyball, girls and boys soccer, girls and boys basketball, softball and baseball between the years of 2015 and 2020 versus their suburban Des Moines counterparts.

For many of the schools considering a change, old partnerships may be new again. Fort Dodge first joined the “Big Four” Conference in 1934-35, which included the Dodgers, Mason City, Waterloo East and Waterloo West. In 1941-42, Des Moines East, Des Moines Roosevelt and Des Moines North were added to create the “Big Seven.”

Roosevelt left in 1947-48 and the league was the “Big Six.” Cedar Falls was in and Des Moines North was out in 1961-62.

The “Big Eight” was created in 1968-69, with Fort Dodge, Mason City, Cedar Falls, Waterloo East and Waterloo West flanking Marshalltown, Ames and Newton.

The Big Eight disbanded in 1992, a year after Marshalltown left for the CIML. Cedar Falls, Waterloo East and Waterloo West went east, joining the Mississippi Valley Conference.

“We’ve been an annual rival of Mason City’s for over 100 years,” Ulrich said. “Marshalltown and Ames for over 50. And our roots with a lot of the Des Moines public schools run pretty deep and go way back.

“We’ll just have to see where this goes and continue to work with the superintendents and athletic directors from other schools to decide what makes the most sense.”

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