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City Runs 'Separate and Unequal' Sports Program, League Founder Says

By Amy Zimmer | May 28, 2014 10:07am

MANHATTAN — A teacher who created his own sports league to serve the city's small high schools is filing a civil rights complaint this week alleging that the city ignores small, diverse schools and prioritizes large, predominantly white schools when it comes to funding high school sports.

David Garcia-Rosen founded the Small Schools Athletic League on a shoestring budget in 2011, and it has since grown to include 42 small schools with more than 90 teams serving more than 1,700 students.

But it is still dwarfed in both funding and influence by the Public Schools Athletic League, the 111-year-old organization that funds teams for some 37,000 students at more than 400 schools.

Now, the Department of Education wants to fold the Small Schools Athletic League into the PSAL, a move Garcia-Rosen is fighting by claiming that the PSAL has created a "separate and unequal" high school sports system.

Garcia-Rosen plans to file a complaint Wednesday with the U.S. Department of Education's Office alleging that the city's DOE is violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the way it funds high school sports.

"There are 24,000 students with no sports and 64,000 students with no sports at some point of the year," Garcia-Rosen said. "Then there are some schools with 44 teams. When I looked at the schools with no sports, it was those with high rates of students of color and poverty."

Garcia-Rosen believes all students have the right to play high school sports. He started the SSAL when he was dean of International Community High School after trying unsuccessfully to get cricket and baseball teams for his small school in the South Bronx.  PSAL — which has an annual budget of about $23 million — rebuffed him, saying there wasn't enough funding, Garcia-Rosen recounted.

So, he started his own league, where principals funded teams through their own budgets — rather than receiving funding for the sports through the PSAL  — and he also started researching the breakdown of which high schools have sports teams.

"It's not that there's not enough money," Garcia-Rosen said. "They are building world-class teams at some schools."

When table tennis and badminton were introduced as new PSAL sports last year, for instance, Tottenville High School,  which is 81 percent white, got funding for both of the new sports, adding to its existing roster of 44 other PSAL-funded sports, Garcia-Rosen said, while other schools that had no teams to begin with continued to be excluded by PSAL.

The DOE did not specifically comment on why the new programs were not offered to more small schools, but added that more than 80 percent of PSAL athletes are students of color, DOE officials said.

The DOE added that PSAL — which covers the cost of coaching staff and league officials — makes decisions on accepting new teams based on student demand for the particular sport, as well as available certified coaching staff, and access to a facility.

PSAL officials also evaluate whether there is available school funding for items not covered by PSAL, such as uniforms and equipment, according to DOE officials.

"We are working to create a new league in PSAL which will expand opportunity for students in small schools," DOE spokeswoman Devora Kaye said. "We will continue to discuss with SSAL and are hopeful that with the league expansion, we’ll reach even more students in more schools across [the] city."

Garcia-Rosen said the DOE offered him a job at PSAL, but said the agency has not clarified the terms of the position or whether he can continue running his Small Schools Athletic League in its current form, he said.

Garcia-Rosen said he presented the DOE with a list of 25 demands for his league, including $1.25 million so that it can continue this fall, but so far they have gone unanswered.

"I've been a DOE employee for 16 years, and I've been in the small high schools," Garcia-Rosen said. "I've seen kids drop out and turn to drugs when sports could have really helped them."