GOLFERS HANDICAPPED 

A new Parks and Recreation policy has angered many Southside parents and high school golfers, who say the City is discriminating against the Southside Independent School District.

For at least 15 years, Parks and Recreation has allowed local high school and middle school students who participate in school golf programs to play and practice on municipal golf courses for free. Southside students consider the Mission Del Lago municipal golf course their turf, since it is located near their schools.

Parks and Recreation has continued the tradition this year, opening the links to school golf teams to practice their drives, chips, and putts - but with a catch: For the students to play and practice for free, their respective school districts must make their sports facilities available for the city to use when the schools are closed.

But SISD alleges that Parks and Recreation didn't offer the district the same deal - but a different one that would require high school and middle school golfers to work at the city links in exchange for free practice time.

Now SISD students have been removed from the free player list, sparking allegations from parents that parks management is unfairly targeting their children.

Ron Smudy, assistant director for operations at Parks and Recreation, said the decision was made to change the free-play policy in light of a $900,000 carryover deficit in the city's golf program. "Golf is supposed to pay its way," Smudy explained.

Parks and Recreation management devised the facilities-for-play swap with local school districts, Smudy said, but SISD did not accept the offer. He said Parks and Recreation sent letters to SISD concerning the matter, and met with district officials last November. "We told them that even though the district as a whole may not want to reciprocate, we don't want the golf program to suffer," Smudy explained. "We said the kids could work for us, as starters, course monitors, doing some maintenance, and we would assess that value and reciprocate for a period from February through April. We never heard from them again."

Southside High School Athletic Director Harrison Thrist said the City didn't offer to swap free play for use of school district sports facilities. Southside parents are furious over the city's suggestion that they or their children should work at Mission Del Lago so their own children can play golf for free.

"That is not acceptable," says Frank Casias, a Southside parent.

Casias says SISD has paid its share towards the City's golf program. It spends from $3,000 to $5,000 annually sponsoring tournaments on local golf courses, and has supported Mission Del Lago. "This is totally unfair. This district has kept Mission Del Lago alive."

The SISD golf program has gained momentum since the high school boys' team was organized in 1995, and the girls' team was added in 1998. The high school girls' team has won five District 4A titles, and qualified for state playoffs in 2000, 2002, and 2003. The boys have won seven district titles and qualified for state in 1999.

"The success of the program is a direct result of the free play policy," Thrist says. "Take that away, and it depletes our ability to be successful, because of the extra cost to our parents."

Other costs at the municipal courses have increased. In 2002, punch cards for golf rounds cost $36. This year, the cards cost $60. Practice round punch cards cost $10 three years ago, and now they cost $25. SISD only pays for high school students. "You're talking about a parent paying $60, plus $25 for rounds of golf during the season, and some of them have more than one child in the program," Thrist explains.

"Don't discriminate against my kids just because they go to Southside High School," said Raul Martinez, whose two daughters, Amanda, 15, and Samantha, 12, play for Southside High and Southside Middle School, respectively.

"The reason parents are upset is we have had one of the largest teams in the city participating, and the students are also some of the poorest per capita students involved in the program. This will dwindle our participation," Thrist explained. "What it boils down to is that the city, according to what we were told, doesn't benefit from us, therefore we will not be provided with free play. They are penalizing our program."

Smudy says the department met with Athletic Director Thrist and Southside High School golf coach Rick Rodriguez. "I don't know what they told parents, but I know what we told them. We cannot give away free golf any more."

Thrist said he believes the department's decision was based on a different financial reason. Since the Southside has about 80 students in the golf program, the city would lose money by foregoing green fees when students are playing or practicing. "That's the way I'm looking at it," he said. •

More by Michael Cary

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