John Acklin

The gymnasium at Conneaut Area Senior High School has signs of athletic accomplishment that represent the past 50 years of sports history in western Crawford County. Pictured is CASH Athletic Director John Acklin.

LINESVILLE — Everything is color coordinated in the Conneaut Area Senior High School gymnasium.

Well, almost everything.

The bleachers, the scoring table, the details on the hardwood floor; they all correspond with Conneaut's blue, silver and white color scheme.

There are vivid exceptions, though.

Up on the gymnasium's walls hang big displays that honor past athletic accomplishments — for example, 1,000-point scorers in basketball, or team titles won in baseball or softball. Upon those displays are plates with names or years on them. And many of those plates are in colors that don't match at all. 

There are some in orange and black. There are some in red and black. There are others in maroon and silver. 

While these clashing palettes are enough to make an interior designer squirm, they serve an important purpose at Conneaut High. They are among the few visible links to the past for this 6-year-old school. Basically, those odd-colored signs represent the previous 50 years of sports history in western Crawford County. 

Those colors date to when there were three different high schools in the Conneaut School District — Conneaut Lake (the maroon and silver), Conneaut Valley (the red and black) and Linesville (the orange and black).

The three high schools were merged in 2012, taking up residence in the former Linesville High School building. The other two buildings are now used by the district as middle schools. 

In the run-up to the merger, Conneaut School District was facing the same problems as many other districts in the state — a shrinking population, belt-tightening budgets and ever-increasing expenses. 

The school board felt that its best option was to consolidate the three high schools into one to save on costs. Everyone involved knew there would be challenges to the plan. And there was plenty of vocal opposition. But the board didn't feel that there was any other option, so the merger went through. 

It's now six years later and the positive results of the merger far outweigh the negatives, according to Conneaut Athletic Director John Acklin, who was also a longtime coach and athletic director at the former Linesville school.

"It was a huge positive," Acklin said. "At the time, the majority of the public probably would have not agreed with that. But at this point in time now, I think the people would all agree that this is good."

What works, what doesn't

Conneaut's consolidation works because the district was able to benefit from a favorable set of circumstances.

One of them was geographical. The district is fairly long — about 40 miles from one end to the other. However, centering the high school in Linesville didn't really add all that much to the commute. The Linesville facility is nine miles from the former Conneaut Valley High and seven miles from the former Conneaut Lake High. 

"We’re centrally located, more or less," Acklin said. "And they try to keep the bus runs down to about an hour, which they’ve been able to achieve."

The size of a potential consolidation plays a huge role in its viability.

For instance, the Warren County School District is facing a $2.2 million budget deficit for the upcoming school year unless it raises school taxes or gets more help from the state. Plus, the district is facing ever-declining participation in athletics. It already cost the county one program. In 2017, Youngsville High School's football team was eliminated and the players joined Warren High School in a co-operative agreement.

A consolidation like the Conneaut model may not be feasible for Warren County, which has four public high schools (Eisenhower, Sheffield, Warren and Youngsville) and one private high school (Tidioute Community Charter) spread out over an immense 792 square miles.

The Warren County School Board recently discussed proposals for further co-op programs in athletics and band. But the board received a strongly negative reaction to the plans from the public. And in June the board decided not to vote on the co-op proposals, instead seeking more information on why participation is dwindling. 

“Each time, like clockwork, the public is here in droves talking about athletics ... and have shooed us away from consolidation,” board member Joe Colosimo was quoted as saying in a July article in the Warren Times Observer. “I think the board and administration made it abundantly and crystal clear that we are going to take a proactive approach or the athletic programs are going to die of a thousand cuts.”

Another reason why consolidation worked for Conneaut is that its three former schools were pretty similar in a socioeconomic sense. They were all based in small, mostly rural areas. So, bringing all the students together didn't create much of a culture clash. And all three schools were in the same boat. They were governed by the same district. They were funded by the same tax base. And they were facing the same financial issues. 

When there is an imbalance in the socioeconomic status of potential merging partners, consolidation gets much more complicated. 

There is a now-famous example of this in Beaver County. In 1985, Lincoln High School in Midland was forced to close its doors due to economic hardship caused by the closure of a nearby steel mill. 

The Midland Area School District requested a merger with 14 nearby school districts and was turned down by each one.

The school district tried sending its high schoolers to nearby Beaver Area High School in exchange for tuition payments. But that agreement was short lived. 

According to a case study on the Midland issue recently released by the Washington, D.C.-based think tank EdBuild, "Midland students, many of whom were nonwhite and from poorer homes, encountered hostility in their new school, and Beaver Area never fully welcomed them."

Beaver Area ended the tuition agreement in 1990. The Midland school district then tried a similar tuition-based agreement with East Liverpool High School in Ohio. That lasted until 2015 when East Liverpool terminated it. 

The EdBuild report states, "Today, Midland students complete high school through a patchwork of charter school options and a smaller, renewed agreement with Beaver Area."

Lingering issues

Acklin was quick to note that, "I can't say that we're free of problems."

One of the more interesting issues that cropped up in Conneaut's consolidation was the elevation of its small-school programs into the realm of big-school athletics. 

"You have to remember that we put three very small towns and very small schools (together)," Acklin said. "Conneaut Valley would graduate in the 60 to 70 range. Linesville would be in the 80 range. At one time Conneaut Lake was significantly bigger, around 110, 120. They dropped back, so they were relatively in the same area, 70 or 80."

All three schools were playing in the lower Class A level leading up to the merger. And then ...

"We bumped up to 3A," Acklin said. "Now with the new regions we’re all kinds of numbers. We’re 4A, we’re 5A depending on what sport you’re talking about. Since we’ve moved up, the competition that we’re playing against comes against all large towns — Meadville, Titusville, Grove City, Oil City, Sharon."

And, with home base being the former Linesville school, Conneaut was hosting those big-school opponents upon its small-school facilities.

Conneaut added a new set of home bleachers and a new scoreboard to its football stadium. But basically everything else at the school is the same as it was when it was Linesville High School — except for the color scheme. 

"We didn’t have necessarily the same facilities that (our opponents) have," Acklin said. "Last year, as an example, we were the only (football field) in the course of the year that was grass. Everybody that we had was turf."

Where most teams have field houses at their stadiums, with its own locker rooms and weight rooms, Conneaut and its visiting opponents still tromp in and out of the locker rooms inside the high school building during each game. And Conneaut's locker room isn't even large enough to fit its own team. They have to stash some players in one locker room, some in another. 

"Our coaches have often shared with me that they believe our District fails to realize we are no longer a small school," Acklin stated in an email. "We all feel that our students should have the same level playing field that our competition encounters."

A success story

In spite of some growing pains, there are several metrics that show that the Conneaut consolidation is a success. 

For instance, by trimming the teaching staff, sports programs and other expenses, the district was able to get on firmer ground financially. Acklin said the district saw considerable savings immediately and currently has around $14 million in its reserve fund. 

Also, by consolidating the student body, the district was able to offer its students more academic options. 

"Maybe there were three kids at Conneaut Valley that wanted to take a particular subject," Acklin said. "Conneaut Lake had three kids. Linesville had three kids. But you can’t have a teacher for three, four, five kids. This way, you put them together and you have 12, 15 or 18 kids."

The consolidation broadened Conneaut's athletic options in much the same way. Not only was Conneaut able to add sports, such as girls golf and lacrosse, but it was also able to house its former co-operative programs under one roof, giving all of the district's students equal access to all sports. 

"We have so many more teams," Acklin said. "We have 17 varsity teams, which, there again, is a significant difference from back when we had three high schools. Because one school would have boys volleyball, the other two didn’t. One school had wrestling, the others didn’t. By combining them, now we have 17 sports, which means that the kids have a lot of opportunities."

And those sports programs have already seen a good deal of success on the field of play.

"I think the biggest surprise to me was that I was pretty sure that, going to a higher competition level, that we would not be able to compete as far as winning championships," Acklin said. "I knew we’d be able to compete on the field. But as far as winning championships, that would be very difficult.

"I was surprised because we’ve done very well. We have a trophy case and a half full of trophies that we’ve all won. Championships always bring good things. They bring a lot of camaraderie among the kids, among the parents, they get on board."

Conneaut's most pivotal success in athletics came in 2014 when its football team won the District 10 Class AAA championship with a 14-7 win over private school powerhouse Cathedral Prep based in Erie.

That was just three years into Conneaut's existence. And, according to Acklin, it provided the school with an exciting rallying point. As he put it, that football championship was "the defining moment" where the three schools became one. 

"I noticed in the early years of consolidation you’d see Conneaut Lake shirts being worn around the school. You’d see Conneaut Valley shirts being worn around the school and so forth," Acklin said. "And now those have become history."

These days, the only time you'll see the school colors for the three former Conneaut area high schools is on the gym walls.

Pete Chiodo can be reached at 724-6370 or by email at pchiodo@meadvilletribune.com.

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