MALIBU — The number of nights that Malibu High School sports teams may use the new field lights has been the subject of much debate and litigation, but school officials still harbor concerns that a limited number of nights could have implications for a federal law requiring equality between the girls’ and boys’ squads.
Title IX is a federal law that requires schools to provide equal educational opportunities for male and female students. That includes sports facilities like the lights at Malibu High School.
When the discussion of the lights first came up, it mainly focused on the football team. Although female players are allowed and have played on the team, it is dominated by boys, said Mark Kelly, now director of Student Services but formerly the principal of Malibu High School.
“Sixteen nights just for football wouldn’t cut the mustard on that,” Kelly said.
That question of equity was a major factor in the push to alter the Local Coastal Permit, which forbade the use of lights at the field, said Peter Anthony, one of the leaders of the “Bring on the Lights” committee that spearheaded fundraising for the lights.
“Parents of girls soccer players in Malibu spoke up and said, ‘Why is this just for boys, what about our girls?’” Anthony said. “You ought to consider the needs of all kids when you’re doing this kind of thing.”
The Malibu City Council ultimately approved 61 nights of lights with specific timing restrictions. That amount would more than cover existing teams, but would leave flexibility for future ones, like a girls’ lacrosse team, Kelly said.
“We would be hard-pressed to use 61 nights, but we’re not just planning for today,” Kelly said.
Cami Winikoff, one of the leaders on the Malibu Community Alliance, calls the equality argument misleading.
“If they had 16 nights of light, they would use eight for boys’ football and eight for girls’ soccer,” she said. “They like to make it like it’s an issue where the sports program can’t go forward. We’re not talking about stopping the sports program.”
The alliance points to other schools like Skyline High School in Oakland, Calif., which settled with the Hillcrest Estates Improvement Association to limit the number of nights that their lights could be used.
That agreement was later amended in 2010 to allow lights seven days a week until 7 p.m. for practices. The lights can be used for the school’s commencement and scheduled athletic events, although no more than 20 per year and with lights off at 10 p.m.
The Palos Verdes Unified School District is also struggling with controversy created by field lights. Advocates of lights sued the school district in an effort to compel it to install lights, for which they had raised money.
The Daily Breeze reported in April that a judge had thrown out a portion of the case that would have forced the school district to move forward with the lighting project, but left it open to fraud charges.
The arguments against lights in Malibu focus on the community’s traditionally dark skies and nearby neighbors’ concerns about light pollution, while proponents say that the lack of lighting negatively impacts the campus’ sports programs.
Friday night lights
How many nights of lights and how those nights are divided between the teams could tread on Title IX territory.
Lights allow teams to play later in the evening, often outside of the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. working day that can constrain parents from being able to watch their children’s games.
That fact became particularly relevant after the U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeal ruled on a 2009 case that girls’ and boys’ sports teams should have the same “prime time” scheduling.
The case originated out of Indiana. Amber Parker, a former coach at Franklin County High School, sued the Franklin County Community School Corporation and other school districts because girls’ games tended to be scheduled on school nights whereas the boys’ games were mainly on weekends.
That impacted the girls’ ability to do homework and spectators’ ability to attend, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, senior director of advocacy for the Women’s Sports Foundation.
“The court held that it was impermissible that the girls had to play then,” Hogshead-Makar said. “They could never develop a fan base, because parents and fans could not get those nights off.
“Most kids want to play on Friday nights,” Hogshead-Makar said.
This kind of “prime time” scheduling will likely play a role in Malibu High School’s determination of how to carve up the nights that lights are available, although how many they’ll have depends on the outcome of litigation with the alliance.
The group is advocating for 16 nights of light, which it calls the “community compromise” that came out of a 2010 Planning Commission meeting. The alliance has shown flexibility by proposing up to 32 nights in the past, Winikoff said.
“We’re still fighting for the community compromise, which was fully vetted,” Winikoff said.
Sixteen nights won’t cut it for Anthony, whose group has already paid $170,000 for the lights and put down a $250,000 down payment on the installation. They have agreed to cover the remaining $230,000 fronted by the school district as well.
It also ties the school district’s hands, should future sports teams come online, Kelly said.
Still at question are the legal costs, which the alliance says are mounting quickly. The school district has expressed hope that the Malibu lights supporters will help pay for the legal bill as well, although no firm commitments have been made.