- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

BARTON, Ark. - The beloved Barton High School Bears sweat through another four-hour practice in the stifling Mississippi Delta heat as they grind out their blocking and tackling drills over and over until they get them right.

That kind of commitment has helped make the team more than just a perennial contender for the state title. It has given a rural area cut from seemingly endless cotton fields a point of pride and some much-needed excitement on Friday nights.

“Without football, this town wouldn’t be much,” says senior Jason Smith, who plays safety. “When you go into town, everyone asks you about the team. It’s been that way for years.”

Only this year, the concern over the Bears goes beyond wins and losses. It’s whether the team that has become the heart and soul of a community soon will be gone forever.

With Arkansas under an order from its state Supreme Court to fix a public school system that has been declared unconstitutionally deficient, some see consolidation of tiny schools like Barton as the only way to make real progress.

But the plan has stalled because of a lobbying effort by rural towns that don’t want to lose the identity they get from their schools — and their football teams. That has ignited a statewide debate over the value placed on the South’s most revered sport.

Gov. Mike Huckabee, who is leading the consolidation effort, says the obsession with football is disturbing in a state that ranks near the bottom in most educational categories and where nearly a quarter of its residents don’t have a high school diploma.

The Republican governor blames it on a culture “where many adults are quite content to have the inadequacies of their personal athletic performances fulfilled through the lives of students on a Friday night.”

That is an insult to small-town Arkansas’ football boosters, who say their fight is really about keeping communities together and preserving opportunities for students who likely wouldn’t be able to play football in larger, combined schools.

“Football is good for the communities and good for the schools,” says Jimmy Coats, director of the Arkansas Activities Association, adding that many of the 200 high schools that offer football in the state are small.

Mr. Huckabee argues that consolidation is the best way to ensure that an estimated $825 million a year in new funding needed to meet the court mandate is spent effectively and efficiently. His plan would target for consolidation school districts with fewer than 1,500 students.

Barton High has just 740 students.

“Consolidation is a big-time concern for us,” says Brian Ketchum, a parent of a Barton player.

Since Coach Frank McClellan came to this farming community 32 years ago, the Bears have amassed 318 victories, eight state championships and seven undefeated seasons, and have appeared in the state playoffs 24 times. From 1986 to 1990, they won 63 straight games.

“It’s a tradition. If you’re a guy at Barton, you play football. We’ve been beating everybody around here forever,” Jason said.

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