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Charles City is prepared if Northeast Iowa Conference dissolves

By James Grob, [email protected]

The Northeast Iowa Conference is 102 years old, and it’s on “life support.” Now may be the time to pull the plug.

It was announced last week that member schools New Hampton, Crestwood and Waukon are petitioning to leave the NEIC and join an expanded Upper Iowa Conference. Oelwein left the NEIC a year ago and joined the North Iowa Cedar League at the beginning of the school year, leaving the NEIC with just six schools.

If New Hampton, Crestwood and Waukon leave as well, only Charles City, Waverly and Decorah would remain.

“The NEIC would only have three schools and would no longer be viable as a conference,” said Charles City Director of Communications Justin DeVore. “The NEIC was on life support as it was with just six school districts.”

Charles City Superintendent of Schools Mike Fisher said that although Charles City is not the school that’s driving expansion or realignment at this time, he feels that the district is in good shape because of the work it has done in the past to address the possibility of changing conferences.

“This is something we heavily pursued two years ago, but did not have the support of the other schools,” Fisher said. “We have contingency plans — we have plans to change conferences, we’ve had plans to reshape the conference.”

Fisher said he is skeptical of expansion, because it’s come up every year in the four years he’s been at Charles City, and each time other schools have expressed interest, then have ultimately backed out.

“The NEIC is facing a couple things. One, if some of the schools leave, what do the remaining members do?” he asked. “Also what about expansion of the conference?”

DeVore said that attempts at expanding the NEIC in recent years have failed.

“Every year, there has been an offer made for another school to join the NEIC, and nobody ever says yes,” DeVore said.

DeVore said that the district does have contingency plans and it would keep the public informed should any of the three schools choose to leave the NEIC. For the time being, Charles City will wait and see what happens.

“It’s a very fluid situation. This change is not being initiated by Charles City, but we do have plans if the NEIC dissolves,” DeVore said. “We have petitioned to go into another conference. There are options, and we are looking into those options.”

DeVore said that at this point, Charles City has not heard from Waverly or Decorah as what what plans those schools have should the conference dissolve.

Charles City was one of the founding member schools of the NEIC in 1920. Charles City left the conference in 1939, then rejoined during the 1946-47 school year, and has been a member since then.

The same seven schools made up the NEIC from 1970-2020 — Charles City, New Hampton, Waverly-Shell Rock, Oelwein, Crestwood, Decorah and Waukon. It went down to only six schools starting in 2021, when Oelwein, another founding member school, left and joined the North Iowa Cedar League.

The smallest school in the NEIC is New Hampton, and Waverly-Shell Rock has more than twice New Hampton’s enrollment. Although the NEIC is most known for athletics, it also sponsors a music festival, a leadership conference and other academic events.

In March of 2020, the NEIC executive board — made up of superintendents of all member schools — unanimously rejected a request from Mason City to join the athletic and scholastic group.

At that time, the NEIC executive board had been undergoing discussions of forming a new “super conference,” with classification built around competition and equity to distribute teams into competitive groups.

Mason City wanted to leave the Des Moines-based Central Iowa Metropolitan League (CIML) and join the NEIC because most of the CIML’s 18 school districts are much bigger than Mason City. It also has high transportation costs because Des Moines schools are a four-hour round trip.

Mason City already played a number of the current NEIC schools in multiple sports, but Mason City’s request to join the NEIC was denied.

In September of 2020, a task force told the school board it recommended Charles City leave the NEIC and form a new conference.

The recommendation called for Charles City to exit the Northeast Iowa Conference within two years, and form its own conference and recruit schools into the conference that share Charles City’s values of character and competence.

The recommendation came on the heels of an incident that took place during a baseball game at Waverly. The district formed the task force — made up of students, coaches, staff members, board members, parents and alumni — after racist jeers were directed a Charles City outfielder during a varsity baseball game.

“The incident made us really question not only the continued partnership with our athletic and activities conference, but also the sustainability of the conference,” said Fisher. “The NEIC has had several challenges as a conference here recently, and a history of sportsmanship issues has resurfaced.”

Fisher said he has heard many stories about some of the unhealthy relationships between NEIC schools.

“It’s not something recent,” he said. “It’s been over many years.”

School board member Pat Rottinghaus, who was on the task force, agreed.

“It’s a lot longer than the last 10 years,” she said. “Some of this has been going on for generations. There were people on the task force who competed in the conference 20-plus years ago, who said that this was a problem then.”

DeVore said that the sportsmanship issues still remain.

“I think that sportsmanship issues continue to be a problem for many of the schools in the NEIC,” DeVore said.

In 2020, Fisher said he had talked to 10 other schools, and all 10 expressed interest in joining a new conference, including most of the current NEIC members.

He said the working name of the conference is the “Northeast Iowa Rivers Conference,” and it will be tagged as the “Conference of Character.”

“You would see something that might be very similar to the NEIC, but better,” Fisher said. “We could set up this conference for the next 100 years. It won’t be just about wins and losses, it will be about building better human beings.”

He said the conference by-laws would reflect that vision, as would the schools invited to join the conference. He said that if the board approves the recommendation, it would begin a two-year process of forming the new league. That idea never came to fruition.

“That was shut down by some of the other NEIC schools, who said there was no support for it,” DeVore said. “Really what it comes down to is the history of the NEIC conference, which is the oldest conference in the state of Iowa. They wanted to preserve that history and find another way.”

The Upper Iowa Conference is looking into expanding to a two-division or three division conference, based on school enrollments. It has invited nine area schools to join. Beyond New Hampton, Crestwood and Waukon, the UIC has invited Osage, Sumner-Fredericksburg, Starmont, Edgewood-Colesburg, Tripoli and Riceville.

Currently the UIC is made up of North Fayette Valley, MFL-Mar-Mac, Postville, Clayton Ridge, South Winneshiek, Central Elkader, Turkey Valley, Lansing Kee and West Central.

The UIC’s invitation letter included a timeline that has a June 1 deadline for school district to submit a formal request to join the UIC. The UIC superintendents said that the timeline calls on current UIC school districts to act on each request and that in late July and early August, the conference superintendents will vote on accepting requests.

The UIC would use the 2022-23 school year to plan the expansion and the “new UIC” would begin in 2023-24.

— Bob Fenske of the New Hampton Tribune contributed to this report

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