When is a school team not a school team?
That basic distinction sits at the heart of a dispute on one Forsyth County campus this fall, with strong opinions on both sides of the question.
Holland Mills coaches a fall baseball team made up of athletes from Forsyth Central’s varsity, junior varsity and freshman teams. Although not sanctioned by the Georgia High School Association or officially recognized by the high school, the team still calls itself the Central Bulldogs and competes in a fall league based at Northview High School in north Fulton County.
The team began practicing in early September and is scheduled to play games at Northview through late October. Fall teams representing other schools like Northview, South Forsyth and Duluth are also part of the league, Mills said.
“The team is made up of 100 percent Forsyth Central High School students,” said Mills, a Central baseball parent who does not coach the official Central baseball program and who spent last season as the public address announcer for Bulldog home games.
He said the fall team was selected by parent-coaches, with no input from the school’s baseball staff.
Fall baseball isn’t so much about winning and losing as trying to get better before the spring season. Fall leagues will encourage athletes to focus on fundamentals over big stats, and try out players in different positions to see what works best.
So if a team is made up of athletes from a high school and uses the same mascot as the school — but has no official ties to the school or the GHSA — should it be allowed to call the school’s home field its own?
According to Forsyth Central principal Rudy Hampton, the answer is no.
Hampton has consistently denied the team permission to use Central’s baseball field for practice. He says local principals and the school board reached an agreement about a year ago to deny the use of school facilities to teams not sanctioned by the GHSA or coached by employees of the school system.
The firm line is necessary to protect the athletic surfaces, he says.
“The decision was based on the fact that if we let one group have access to fields, gyms, etc., then we have to let everyone, and we simply do not have facilities that can withstand that much use,”
Hampton wrote in an e-mailed response to an inquiry seeking information for this story.
“The wear and tear would be too much to accommodate — especially on the grass practice and game fields.”
While not an official policy, the agreement appears to apply systemwide.
Ken Kennedy, who coaches South Forsyth’s fall team, says the team has not used the school’s field or sought to.
North Forsyth’s fall team has been kept off that school’s field, according to a parent of a North player who said the arrangement has hurt players’ chances to improve in the offseason.
West Forsyth doesn’t field a fall baseball team.
Potential liability concerns appear to be already covered in the system’s administrative procedure dealing with community use of facilities.
The regulation states that facilities users must present the principal with proof of liability coverage worth $1 million and hold the system or its employees harmless in the event of injury.
Looking outside the county, there doesn’t appear to be any hard-and-fast rule for determining which teams can use school facilities.
Gordon Higgins, director of community relations and athletics for Hall County schools, said that local parks and rec clubs are the only “outside” teams allowed to use facilities in that school system.
In Fulton County, outside organizations are permitted to use school system facilities as long as the school agrees, according to communications manager Susan Hale.
The teams must agree to maintain the facilities in exchange for using them at no fee, Hale said.
Mills says that his players would be responsible for maintaining the field if they were allowed to use it, and would be mindful of running up costs.
“We’re simply asking to use it during daylight hours. We don’t even want to run the lights because we know it costs money. We just want to get on the field and practice,” he said.
The Central team has a current agreement with Bennett Park, giving the Bulldogs a place to practice on Sundays.
Mills said the team is appreciative for the chance to work out somewhere, but notes that scheduling practices on the busy fields can be tricky, and that the dirt infields and 300-foot fences don’t really simulate the environment of a high school field.
The team has been able to use batting cages near the Central field, which were paid for with booster club money, Mills said.
Mills says that the current approach to facilities use places a team made up entirely of students from a high school in the same category as 10-year-old travel teams. He feels that the makeup of a team should be weighed in deciding whether to grant or deny permission to practice on school property.
“If they’re 100 percent students at your school, why not let them use your facility?” he said.
“I feel like the board of education in their facility use policy say that they encourage the use of the high school facilities. So in one breath, they encourage the use of the high school facilities, and in the next breath the principals have come together and banned all groups ... from the use of the facilities.”
Mills doesn’t see the disagreement as a personal matter, he points out.
“It’s not necessarily an issue between me and the principal. I’m fighting for the good of the club. I’m just trying to do what’s right.”