(Reprinted from the Austin American-Statesman
By John Maher
AUSTIN, Texas, Dec. 22. THIS summer, Tom Jager moved from New Mexico to Austin with the goal of
transforming St. Stephen's Episcopal School into a national prep swimming power.
His hiring was a coup for the private school tucked away off Loop 360 near Lake Austin. Jager is one of the biggest names in U.S. swimming, a five-time
Olympic gold medalist and a captain of the U.S. swim team for 10 years. His dashes for cash with friend Matt Biondi professionalized the sport of swimming.
Jager and fellow swim coach Dan Lawson went to work on building a swimming academy at St. Stephen's where students — and area residents willing to pay $1,500 a year — could train. The ultimate goal was to replace the school's leaky, 50-year-old pool with a $4 million facility.
"I'm in this for the long haul," Jager announced shortly after he arrived.
Not so, it turns out.
This week, after St. Stephen's Board of Trustees voted to eliminate the swimming academy for financial reasons, Jager was mulling options on how to settle his three-year contract.
"Everyone is trying to make the best out of a bad situation," Jager said. "This was a complete shock. I don't think I would have moved my family here if I'd known this was an option."
The move was part of a dramatic shift in vision at St. Stephen's, which in the past decade has spent millions building dazzling athletic facilities. Under headmaster Fred Weissbach, the school sought to stand apart from other prestigious boarding schools by developing sports academies where, for an added fee, students could hone athletic skills valued by colleges.
It was an experiment on a grand scale.
Last year the school's baseball academy, headed by former University of Texas star and ex-major leaguer Keith Moreland, raised $170,000 from boosters to install lights above the emerald field. But this week Moreland, who could not be reached for comment, was informed baseball would be scaled back to the varsity level.
The school affirmed its commitment to soccer and tennis, but tennis parents said they left a Thursday meeting with school officials wondering about that
The grand experiment is clearly over.
"Relatively new programs that required large capital expenditures stood to diminish our overall effectiveness," said the Rt. Rev. Claude E. Payne,
Bishop of Texas and chair of St. Stephen's Board of Trustees. "This is a very difficult decision after a very extensive study."
Meanwhile, Jager isn't sure what's next for him. "I'm kind of numb," he said. "I feel like I've been stopped in my tracks."
Weissbach said he's negotiating settlements with the school's swimming and baseball coaches that he believes they will find acceptable.
St. Stephen's is altering its course as it struggles, in a declining economy, to find the right emphasis for athletics while pursuing its mission of "educating the whole person, mind, body and spirit."
A grand plan derailed
St. Stephen's opened in 1950 with about 70 students in what was then the Austin countryside. Founder John Hines envisioned an Episcopal school that would provide top-notch schooling for children from some of Texas' small towns. It was the first co-ed Episcopal boarding school in the nation and the first integrated boarding school in the South.
The school grew, but in the late 1980s the number of boarders began to decline. Weissbach, a former lacrosse player who became headmaster in 1989, thought St. Stephen's could attract boarders by offering intensive sports programs.
His idea stalled until he worked with Dallas Country Club tennis instructor Eric Schmidhauser to create a tennis academy at St. Stephen's. The school took out a $900,000 loan to build 12 courts on campus and attracted 11 boarders for tennis in the first year.
Pretty soon you couldn't throw up a lob without hitting a sports academy at St. Stephen's. A soccer academy opened seven years ago. Baseball facilities
got a big upgrade last year.
In part because of the tennis and soccer programs, St. Stephen's now has 167 boarding students, almost double the number of a decade ago. Unless they qualify for financial need, boarding students pay $23,680 per year, day students $14,580.
Academy fees are extra. Tennis fees are the highest at $8,000 plus travel expenses. Swimming academy fees this year were $1,500 for middle schoolers, $2,000 for high schoolers. "We had created a large amount of momentum," Jager said. "We went from six or eight kids to about 40 in just a few months."
He said only 14 of those swimmers are St. Stephen's students. To help defray costs, Jager and Lawson opened the academy to school-age swimmers in the
area. Some of the town's top triathletes also began training at St. Stephen's.
Although St. Stephen's is a private school, its athletic facilities are sometimes available to others. The tennis courts have hosted satellite tennis tournaments. The Houston Rockets have trained in the school's $3 million gym. Soccer clubs have used St. Stephen's fields, and there will be some access to a $500,000 soccer field scheduled to open in March.
But the facilities did not pay for themselves, even with fund-raising efforts that topped $2 million. Weissbach — who resigned in May but will stay through this school year — said even the tennis academy, the school's oldest and most visible, is not breaking even.
Bob Ayres, head of a task force that examined the school's academies, said shortfalls from the sports academies were covered by the school's general
operating budget, which was $12 million this year.
Catherine Biafello, a swim parent, said she was shocked when she learned the swimming academy would close after this year. "Tom has been the best thing that's ever happened to swimming in Austin," she said. "From what I've seen in the past few months, it would be a powerhouse. It's truly disappointing. The kids are upset."
(You may contact John Maher at email@example.com or 445-3956.)