Woodstock Academy, an independent high school serving approximately six towns in the northeast corner of Connecticut, is close to deciding whether its athletic program will remain a member of the CIAC or go it alone as a prep school under the New England Prep School Athletic Council.
The school is expected to render a decision with a meeting of its Board of Trustees Thursday night, according to an email sent by headmaster Christopher Sandford.
The impending decision will conclude months of negotiations between the school and the CIAC, the state’s ruling body for interscholastic athletics, over its use of postgraduate athletes.
Though the CIAC gave Woodstock its blessing to start a postgraduate basketball program last year, it learned Woodstock skirted CIAC bylaws by allowing undergraduates to practice and compete with the new prep program.
“We were very clear that if you’ve got ninth-through-12th graders who haven’t graduated from high school and you’re a CIAC member school, those kids need to compete within the CIAC,” said Karissa Niehoff, the CIAC’s executive director. “The CIAC doesn’t deal with kids who have graduated from high school.
“What we found out, though, was the basketball program Woodstock developed had some of their ninth-through-12 graders playing with fifth year seniors and postgraduates in the prep school league. We didn’t know that. This is at the same time they had a CIAC ninth-through-12 grade team.”
Woodstock also announced its intention to start a postgraduate football program that would join the NEPSAC’s Evergreen Football League. That league, however, is comprised mostly of undergraduate athletes, meaning Woodstock would have to use its own undergraduate despite CIAC bylaws.
On this, the CIAC says it will not abide: Woodstock must either withdraw its program from the NEPSAC or leave the CIAC.
“I was very clear, (associate executive director) Gregg (Simon) was very clear — in email and on the phone — that this has to be post-graduate,” Niehoff said. “You cannot have ninth through 12th graders playing in the NEPSAC and also as a CIAC member school.
“They did it anyway. They joined the NEPSAC. We said you can’t do it. Since December, we’ve been telling them you need to make a decision. We told them: We want you in the CIAC, but if you’re in the CIAC you need to follow our bylaws and membership rules.”
Woodstock has since been mulling over the consequences of leaving the CIAC.
In a public statement published March 12, Sandford said moving to the NEPSAC as a full-fledged member might be in the school’s best interest, given the CIAC’s ultimatum.
Sandford, the school’s headmaster since 2013, said keeping the football team in the CIAC, (where it has won only 22 games in 10 years), eliminating the currently constructed nationally ranked prep-basketball team, and abiding by the CIAC’s transfer rules (which state that all non-freshman transfers must sit half a season), would have a “devastating impact on the academy and not allow us to meet our mission as an institution.”
In late March, parents of Woodstock’s local athletes went to the Board of Trustees to dissuade the school from becoming a full-fledged prep school, according to the Norwich Bulletin, with many arguing that the school would be abandoning its local athletes. A public forum with school officials on April 3 was also contentious, with a vocal majority demanding the school stay in the CIAC, according to WINY Radio.
Woodstock Academy has long been a member of the CIAC and recently won state championships in boys basketball, boys hockey and gymnastics.
But, beginning with its purchase of the nearby Hyde School campus in 2017, the school has trended toward developing into a boarding school while maintaining its use as a public day school.
“They’re building dorms. They have another campus now,” Niehoff said. “Their model has shifted. They’re basically a hybrid.”
Woodstock’s 1,068 students pay tuition either through municipal taxes, if they’re residents, or through private tuition. Sandford estimated local towns cover 60 percent of the academy’s budget while private tuition covers the other 40 percent.
“If we make a significant shift in recruiting students, we would have to cut about 40 (percent) of the athletic budget,” Sandford wrote.
“The academy is not driving this decision.”