David L. Davies is the headmaster at Deerfield-Windsor School.
ALBANY, Ga. — Deerfield-Windsor is staying.
It took weeks of study, a committee that researched every avenue possible, a poll survey among parents and almost two hours of discussion Thursday night from 24 members of DWS' Board of Trustees, but in the end the Board voted for Deerfield-Windsor to stay in the Georgia Independent School Association.
For weeks, the private school had debated leaving for the Georgia High School Association, which includes public and private schools, but a survey of parents indicated a 60-40 split that wanted to stay. After lengthy discussions on Thursday night in a meeting with one item on the agenda, the board voted to stay in the GISA.
"There was broad discussion on both sides,'' Deerfield-Windsor Headmaster Dave Davies said. "This was an important decision. It was as difficult a decision as I have ever seen a board have to make because of the unknowns.''
In the end, that was the biggest hurdle for Deerfield. There were just too many questions that were left unanswered. What region would the teams compete in? Would DWS compete in Class A or Class AA? How would travel be affected?
"It is rare you have to make a decision with so many unknowns and so many things that could change,'' Davies said.
The GHSA will reclassify its schools this summer and couldn't give Deerfield a definitive answer on what region — or even what classification — the school would be competing in in the GHSA. The feeling was DWS would land in Region 1-A, but there has been speculation that private school enrollments might have to be evaluated with a multiplier system. Many public schools in the GHSA want the enrollments of private schools to be multiplied by 1.5, which would put DWS in Class AA.
The genesis for wanting to leave the GISA came from the dwindling number of competitive schools in the association, especially in Class AAA, where three of Deerfield's biggest and most competitive rivals — Mount de Sales, Tattnall Square and Stratford — recently bolted for the GHSA.
There was a fear that the level of competition had dropped to the point that it would be difficult for DWS to find opponents to fill its schedule, especially in football and basketball. A committee was formed last month to look into the feasibility of leaving, a survey was handed out to parents and the school looked seriously into the possibility of leaving the GISA.
It came down to Thursday's vote.
Davies said the school would not release the numbers of the vote, and said only that it was a difficult decision for the 24 members who attended the meeting. There are 29 members on the Board of Trustees.
"I know there are people who have agonized over the last couple of months over this decision,'' Davis said.
One of the key factors was the feelings of the parents.
"We did a survey of parents and got nearly 300 responses,'' Davies said. "We asked them what should be the deciding factor? They said, 'No. 1, school culture/atmosphere. No. 2, level of competition.' ''
DWS was under pressure to make a decision and had to file with the GHSA by April 1 in order to compete for a two-year cycle, beginning in 2014. Davies said the school might consider looking into the next cycle when the school could apply after the 2015 season.
DWS Athletic Director Gordy Gruhl, who is also the boys basketball coach, said he would work hard to find competition and agreed that the biggest problem with making the move was the uncertainty of what life in the GHSA would be like for DWS.
"You make a move like this, and you want answers,'' Gruhl said. "I think a lot of people feel that way. We don't know where we would be going, and we can't get answers. We don't know what region we would be in. We don't know if they will use the multiplier and if we would be Class A or Class AA. When you make a change of this magnitude, people want more definitives.''
Deerfield has been a member of a private school league for more than 40 years and was a charter member of the GISA when the association was formed in 1986. The athletic program has been as dominant as any in GISA, winning multiple state titles.
The general consensus among coaches in the GHSA is that Deerfield would have been competitive in Region 1-A in all sports, but Deerfield would have been the only private school in the region. Davies pointed out after the meeting that the closest private school was 80 miles away in Columbus.
"I have had dozens of discussions with the headmasters at George Walton Academy and FPD (First Presbyterian Day) in Macon,'' Davis said of two schools that left two years ago for the GHSA. "I've asked them how their experience has been in the GHSA, and they said it has been very positive. Both have said that they play private schools in their region. Our nearest private school would be in Columbus, 80 miles away.''
Board Chair Mark Lane echoed that sentiment.
“Deerfield-Windsor is in a unique geographical location for an independent school,'' Lane said. "Although there are numerous GISA member schools nearby, the nearest GHSA independent school is 80 miles away. We are a private school and believe that the GISA serves our overall needs at this time. We will continue to monitor our competitive situation over the next two years, and the Board will again consider our membership in 2015.”
Another factor was the uncertainty of whether the GHSA, which went to a public school/private school split this year, holding separate state tournaments, would continue with that format.
“We are concerned about all of the uncertainties in the GHSA at the present time,'' Davis said. "The public/private split is less than a year old and is tenuous at best. Talk of a possible enrollment multiplier has been considered by state legislators, and our region cannot be determined. In many of our athletic and literary programs, the level of competition in the GISA is more than sufficient to challenge our athletes and students. In those sports where we are more dominant, we will work harder to find opponents, including those out of state, who will challenge our teams.”
That's the answer for DWS: Find better competition to make up for the loss of schools such as Mount de Sales, Tattnall Square and Stratford, three Macon schools which will likely play each other in the same region in the GHSA. Deerfield doesn't have that geographical luxury.
"I was looking forward to the challenge of competing in the GHSA,'' said DWS football coach Allen Lowe, who has won three of the last five GISA Class AAA state football titles, including this year's crown. "We will go back to preparing our team to be as competitive as we can be. It's all about the kids.''
Lowe has been creative in finding tougher competition and played Florida Christian, a powerhouse from Tallahassee, the past two years.
"We have 17 sports and two literary events,'' Davies said. "We are very strong in some sports and not as strong in others. Our GISA peers are strong in some and not in others. In the sports we are strong, we are going to have to find more Florida Christians that can be competitive with us.''
That's the future for DWS now, to stay in the GISA and try to find better competition to make up for the loss of schools that have left for the GHSA.
Still, the debate will go on.
"We are going to keep a study group in existence,'' Davis said. "We will meet from time to time.''