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New league coming to fruition

DMPS, Ames are in; 10-school conference to also include Fort Dodge, Mason City, Marshalltown, Ottumwa

Messenger photo by Britt Kudla: Carson Peterson of Fort Dodge drives to the basket this past season in the Dodger gym.

Ten schools with an organized plan stepped forward together on Monday, as the Des Moines Public Schools and Ames Community School District both confirmed they are leaving the Central Iowa Metro League to join a new large-class conference with Fort Dodge, Mason City, Marshalltown and Ottumwa.

DMPS Superintendent Tom Ahart announced the decision to pull Des Moines Roosevelt, Des Moines Lincoln, Des Moines East, Des Moines Hoover and Des Moines North out of the CIML upon completion of the 2021-22 activities season. A few hours later, Ames formally did the same in a special board meeting.

DMPS and Ames were the final two pieces to a puzzle that has been rapidly taking shape over the course of the last month. The respective school boards at Fort Dodge, Mason City, Marshalltown and Ottumwa had all taken turns approving CIML exit strategies during meetings in prior weeks.

Fort Dodge Community School District Superintendent Dr. Jesse Ulrich applauded Monday’s news, which graduated a new conference from the conceptual stage into official planning and development.

“This is a really exciting time to be a Dodger,” Ulrich said. “It’s a great move for our kids, our families and our community. We’re very happy that the other school districts are on the same page, and we can now begin to move forward together.

“This allows for a more competitive playing field on a nightly basis, and it also ensures our oldest rivals — Mason City, Marshalltown and Ames — are going to be with us well into the future. That was our main focus. We’d been discussing this together for some time, so to put a plan into action with this kind of efficiency and cooperation shows we were all seeing ourselves in kind of a crossroads moment (with the current arrangement).”

Fort Dodge has been a member of the CIML since 1992. The Dodgers and Mason City joined a year after Marshalltown left the Big 8 for the then-13 school CIML, which later added Ottumwa, Johnston, Waukee and Ankeny Centennial, while losing Newton and Indianola.

Waukee splits into two schools next fall. The remaining CIML teams at that point will include Waukee, Waukee Northwest, Ankeny, Ankeny Centennial, West Des Moines Valley, West Des Moines Dowling, Johnston, Southeast Polk and Urbandale.

Fort Dodge was the ninth-largest school in the 16-team CIML 29 years ago, 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.

Now, Fort Dodge ranks 15th out of the current 18 in enrollment, with around 1,100 students at the high school level. West Des Moines Valley, Waukee, Johnston and Southeast Polk now house between 2-3,000 students in their respective high schools, and both Ankenys are rapidly approaching a similar number.

Sheer size isn’t the only factor, though. Resources and athletic budgets are helping to create major gaps in performance as well. According to a spreadsheet shared with Ulrich, the 10 outgoing athletic departments 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 combined between the years of 2015 and 2020 against their suburban Des Moines counterparts.

The next step for the 10 schools will be to formulate a constitution and rulebook. Ulrich didn’t necessarily rule out the addition of more schools — Waterloo East and West have been informally mentioned, as an example — but “we wanted to make sure the 10 were on board first and go from there.”

“There’s been talk of some kind of north-south divisional split if we were to add a few more schools,” Ulrich said. “I know that makes sense for travel purposes. We’ll just have to see. I don’t want to speak for other districts…I’m just going by how I personally feel. We’ve been focused getting the 10 solidified. If someone else would be an obvious fit, though, I wouldn’t personally be opposed at all to discussing it.”

Ulrich added everything “will probably be moving relatively quickly moving forward.”

“We have to start getting plans and schedules ready for 2022-23,” Ulrich said.

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