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Superintendent: Merge with Westfield-Brocton

Fredonia community forum, DiFonzo back program after board president suggested ending it

February 4, 2016
Westfield Republican

FREDONIA - The running message for the Fredonia Board of Education Monday evening was clear: let the parents decide.

Hundreds of community members and students gathered in the district auditorium to show their support for keeping Hillbilly football alive.

With dwindling signup figures and heightened safety concerns as a result, Fredonia officials face the choice of merging its struggling program for the 2016-17 school year or ending it altogether, according to Superintendent Paul DiFonzo.

Article Photos

Photo by Greg Fox
Fredonia Superintendent Paul DiFonzo (center) announces he recommends the school board merge Hillbilly football with the Westfield-Brocton Wolverines during Monday’s community forum.

At the opening of Monday's special board meeting and community forum, DiFonzo announced he is recommending Fredonia combine with the already-merged Westfield-Brocton Wolverines, which triggered applause from the audience.

Roughly 20 people spoke over the course of an hour of public comments. None of them argued Fredonia football should end and many of them argued the role of the school board is to provide as many opportunities to students as possible.

"Inherent in your consideration of ending our football program is your assumption of the role of parent to the children that are or might be playing football," resident John Gullo II told the board. "To a degree, the school board does act in a somewhat parental role, but that role is not greater than, or a replacement for my role as a parent for my children. I think that your limited parental role is satisfied ... by making all student activities as safe as possible and leaving the rest up to us, the actual parents."

Resident Lauralee Ring brought her 11-year-old son Jacob - who is in Midget League - up to the microphone with her. Ring said her son carries a deep passion for football.

"This is going to be his future. If you take that away from him, there's a lot of things these kids can get into, and it scared me so deeply that these kids can have other things to do other than playing football ...," she added. "What about drugs on the street? These kids are going to end up doing more harm to themselves because they're going to have nothing to do. This is something these kids need; us parents need to know our kids are safe on a team with other kids that have the passion to love and play the same thing."

Comments made by Board President Michael Bobseine last week influenced much of the conversation during the public forum. Bobseine - who used to play football - expressed opposition to continuing football due to what he pointed out as irrefutable evidence the sport can have a damaging impact on a player's life, namely from repeated blows to the head.

He reaffirmed his position to the media after the meeting.

"It's only been in the last seven years as I've become familiar with the literature and the research that indicates it's not the concussions that are so concerning ... but it's the subconcussive hits, over and over," he explained. "When you look at the research ... it's showing that it (brain damage) is showing up in 17-year-olds, 18-year-olds, 21-year-olds. And so, to me, I really feel like we're just feeding a really awful system."

Bobseine added a parent cannot sign away the indemnity of their child, so the taxpayers must foot the bill if lawsuits come from injuries sustained while playing football.

"I have a fiduciary responsibility to my district taxpayers and I do believe if something should happen, we're going to get sued, just as happened in Brocton," he concluded.

Many who spoke during the public forum countered Bobseine's claims by asserting there are risks associated with every sport and even with something as mundane as driving a car. Gullo rhetorically asked the board where the line for cutting sports should be drawn, while Dr. Brian Mata of Lakeshore Orthopedic Group pointed out women's soccer also has a significantly heightened risk of bodily injury.

"Maybe we should continue to make these activities as safe as possible and not be ruled by fear," Gullo told the board. "I'm perfectly capable of assessing the risks and deciding what's best for my kids."

A large portion of the people who spoke out Monday also referenced the positives that come out of football, such as a sense of camaraderie, belonging and community pride, as well as lessons in hard work, teamwork and perseverance. Some noted it is also a motivating factor for keeping grades up.

"Football is a special sport to many," resident Robert Brown stated. "It's a passion that builds bonds and the bonds of these players, coaches and parents that develop typically last a lifetime. One previous high school football player I spoke to recently said, 'Football helps me build character traits that I wouldn't have had the chance to build otherwise.'"

The board expects to vote on the three-way merger for its football program at its Feb. 9 meeting at 6 p.m. in the high school library. Fredonia Cable Access Channel 5 will broadcast the community forum today and Friday at 7 p.m.



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