North Salem Board of Ed to vote on proposed football merger with John Jay High School


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Beginning next fall, North Salem High School student athletes who want to play tackle football may be able to take the field if a proposed athletic merger goes through with Katonah-Lewisboro School District’s John Jay High School.

On Wednesday, April 6, the North Salem Board of Education will vote on the proposed merger. If passed, the vote will go to the Katonah Lewisboro School District before requiring final approval by Section One athletics, which oversees public high school sports for 79 member schools in Westchester, Putnam, Dutchess and Rockland counties.

The push to merge with a neighboring school has been several years in the making, largely led by Frank Bucci, a North Salem parent and educator who has coached youth and high school football teams for the past 17 years. Bucci cited area school districts’ declining student populations as a primary reason for administrators to consider merging, though he stressed that his goal has always been about simply providing kids with the option.

“Currently if a kid in the North Salem Central School District wants to play high school football, they have to move or play for a private school,” Bucci said. “I’ve just been trying to get it to where the kids have the opportunity. If this goes through, parents can say, ‘alright, there’s a future.’”

A return to merged play

North Salem previously merged with John Jay for football in the early 2000s, though John Jay ended the relationship because the combined student enrollment numbers bumped the team up in classification from Class A matchups to Class AA. “Parents didn’t really want to take on North Salem and bump up in classification,” Bucci explained.

Ryan Spillane is one of the North Salem HS alumni who played on the combined North Salem-John Jay football team. A 2008 NSHS graduate and the current athletic director for Horace Greeley, Spillane said that his days playing high school football from 2004 through 2007 shaped everything from his friendships to his career choices. “I literally am a physical education teacher and involved in sports now because of the experiences I had,” Spillane said. “I think football is one of the best team games out there. You really have to work together to get any play to work. If one person isn’t doing their job, it kind of doesn’t work. A lot of life lessons can be learned from football.”

Declining enrollments and declining participation

Since the merged football team disbanded in 2010, student populations have been on the decline and fewer students are electing to play football. Between 2011 and 2021, the North Salem CSD lost 21.5% of its student population, according to the district’s long range planning study. The declines are consistent with birth rate declines across the county and state. The state of New York recorded a birth decline of 19% between 2000 and 2020; in Westchester County, births have declined almost 26% since 2000.

At the same time, awareness increased about football’s risk for repetitive head injuries, leading many parents to steer their kids to sports perceived to be less high-risk. In late 2019, high school football participation dropped to its lowest point since 2000, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.

The football families

For every family that may have moved away from football over the past decade, though, there are others who remain passionate about the sport and the opportunities they feel it affords.

“I think it’s a great option for the kids,” said Georgia Sewell, whose 6th grade son has been playing competitive travel football for the past few years. “Playing football has really opened up some great opportunities for him; he’s 11 and we have seen half the country traveling for football.”

Jonathan Monsen, whose son is a 9th grader at North Salem High School, has been working with Bucci and district administrators to advance the merger. Monsen’s son played with John Jay’s youth program from first grade up until this past year; as a freshman, he became ineligible to play since North Salem doesn’t field a team. Monsen said his son is extremely excited about the possibility of a merger, “to play with his old teammates and just get back on the field.”

Mike DiPaola, parent of a North Salem 6th grader who has played youth tackle football for both Brewster and Ridgefield, is hopeful for a merger with John Jay. “It’s a great opportunity for our kids to be part of a top tier football program,” he said.

If approved, football will be the fourth sport for which North Salem participates as part of a merged program. Student athletes who participate in swim, skiing and ice hockey all play on merged teams with other area high schools.

“It’s a hard thing to do, logistics-wise,” Spillane said of merging with neighboring schools. “But, if kids want to play, there should be the opportunity to play.”

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