Local mom urges school board to reconsider decision on Cage contract

SWARTZ CREEK — A Swartz Creek woman is hoping to change the minds of the Board of Education members who voted against renewing the contract with the company that managed the basketball leagues and tournaments at The Cage.

Krystle Steele launched an online petition drive after the Swartz Creek Community Schools school board voted 6-0 against the renewal Sept. 16. As of Monday, nearly 900 people had signed the petition.

“The Cage has been part of our lives for several years,” Steele said. “My son has done several sessions, leagues and tournaments through The Cage and we have spent many evenings during the week and countless weekends competing at The Cage.

“Sports is more than a game. It’s a family commitment. It builds relationships. It’s personal and team-building and growth. Those teammates are family. The coaches are family.”

Steele said she still hasn’t broken the news about The Cage programs to her 6th-grade son, because she knows he will be crushed.

“His commitment (to basketball) runs deep,” she said. “I haven’t told him there is no more Cage, no more games, tournaments or practices. All of his best friends play on the team and now there is nowhere for them to play. It’s heartbreaking.”

Currently, the school district administrative staff are working at The Cage while the administration building is undergoing renovations. The staff is expected to continue to use The Cage until at least spring.

School board Treasurer Michael Ahearne cited that as one of his reasons for voting against the renewal. He also pointed out that there will be no pickleball this year, and that the school district isn’t even utilizing the building for its own students.

Ahearne added that tournaments and leagues would bring 80 to 160 people from all over the region into The Cage every hour, which is cause for concern amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There are a lot more reasons, but I think that’s enough,” Ahearne said. “We just can’t take a chance of signing a contract at this time. Our students can’t go in there, why are we going to bring kids from all over on the weekend?”

Board Vice President Brian Sepanak agreed that “safety is a big deal.”

“This pandemic is really crippling a lot of things,” Sepanak said. “And, I think, right now is not a good time to renew this contract.”

The board said they might reconsider the contract in the next calendar year.

Superintendent Ben Mainka said the district may have to use The Cage when the winter sports season rolls around.

“In the fall, our indoor sport is volleyball,” Mainka said, adding that the volleyball teams are using the school gyms, mainly because it’s easier for players to stay on school grounds after school than to travel to The Cage.

“In the winter, we have multiple indoor sports,” he said. “So, we’re hoping for some changes (in safety guidelines).”

Winter sports will be “impossible” to pull off without The Cage, he added.

“Our kids wouldn’t be able to get practice time in,” Mainka said. “We will need it in the winter.”

Fall sports participants must follow “strict guidelines,” including the use of masks, Mainka said. Each athlete is allowed two spectators at games.

Indoor facilities are allowed to have up to 25 percent capacity. In terms of The Cage, which has a total capacity of about 600, only 125 people could be in the building at one time.

Board member Chuck Melki said, without the Cage Sports contract, the district will lose about $35,000 in the first year, and up to $75,000 in the third.

He said that’s “not a big hit” for the district which received some stimulus money and “a little more” in per-pupil funding for the 2020-21 school year.

“We’re not losing a lot of revenue,” he said. “Plus, (considering) the risk of COVID with their people coming in, plus the administration being there … I’m just looking at this logically. We can still approach them (later). There’s nothing that closes the door on us.”