FREEMAN SCHOOL BOARD REVISITING MARION CONVERSATION
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
One month after showing little interest in what a possible partnership with neighboring Marion could look like — sports cooperation in the short-term and, later, school cooperation — officials from Freeman Public agreed to revisit the issue with the help of Tom Oster, who works with school districts on long-term planning and has his own consulting firm based in Volga.
A public informational meeting has been scheduled by Freeman Superintendent Kevin Kunz for Monday, Jan. 4 at 7 p.m. at the Freeman High School gym to discuss the matter with Oster directly.
The board decided to take another look at the issue while meeting in regular session via Zoom Wednesday, Dec. 16. It came at the recommendation of Kunz, who said some from the community had contacted him saying the public is at least owed an explanation as to why the board was not looking further into what a partnership with Marion would look like.
“If the board chooses not to do something with Marion or not to pursue something with Marion, the community would appreciate getting some type of rational for why we wouldn’t want to do that,” Kunz said. “And I thought that was fair.”
Kunz also reminded the board that Marion has also been in conversations about consolidation with Parker.
“My concern was, if we didn’t at least take a look at this and see what benefits there could be, we could potentially end up on an island moving toward the future,” he said.
Marion is currently in a sports cooperative with Freeman Academy in all athletics except football. The Freeman Academy component did not come up at the Dec. 16 school board meeting.
One of the concerns that had been shared was what a cooperative would mean for classification; Freeman has long competed in Class B and also 9-man football; would adding another school increase the ADM (Average Daily Membership) enough to bump them into Class A and 11-man football?
Kunz addressed that at last week’s meeting.
“I think there are a lot of benefits to a sports cooperative regardless of where the numbers take you,” he said, although he acknowledged that Canistota has no interest in moving to 11-man football and that, if Freeman pursues an athletic co-op with Marion, perhaps that could exclude football — at least for a year.
“They might be able to make something work elsewhere for a year,” Kunz said. “Then we’d have to sit down and have a serious conversation about where we go from there. It’s complicated because of where Canistota is at and the success we’ve had there; to pull the rug out from under them is not the professional thing to do.”
New ADMs released by the South Dakota Activities Association show the Freeman boys at 21.879, the Canistota boys at 24.66 and the Marion boys at 15.707 for a total of 62.243 — over the 11-man cutoff.
Freeman’s overall ADM is 51.475 and Marion is at 33.997 for a total of 85.472; the cutoff to remain in Class B is 89.999.
But numbers can change in a hurry; Freeman Public has picked up 11 new students in the past month and there’s no guarantee where the district will be when the SDHSAA reclassifies schools again next December, this time for a two-year cycle.
“Is the jump from B to A enough to completely throw out the conversation or can we see value in the other things that a sports co-op would bring?” Kunz said.
Kunz said an athletic partnership could very possibly lead to a conversation about consolidation, something that must be voted on — and approved by — voters in both communities.
“I think it would be worth going back to the table and examining things with Marion,” he said. “And I think it would be wise to have Tom Oster be a part of that process. He’s been doing a lot of work with Marion already, so he knows where they are.”
“The most important thing to understand,” Kunz continued, “is that, by reopening things with Marion, it doesn’t obligate the board to do anything. It’s just giving us an opportunity to get more information, to figure out if a sports co-op is something that would benefit our kids, or if consolidation three, four, five years down the road is something that would not only benefit our kids, but also our community from a tax standpoint.”
Board president Kyle Weier was part of an informal conversation with Oster and several other board members from both schools in September and noted that Oster spoke of possible academic benefits to consolidation. He suggested at last week’s meeting that Freeman Public should, in fact, hold a public meeting with Oster’s involvement.
“We keep talking about it as just a sports thing,” Weier said, “but if it does have other benefits, it would be nice see (what those benefits are).”
“I think the public would appreciate an open, public meeting,” Kunz responded. “Lay everything out and say, these are the benefits of a co-op, these would be the drawbacks, get a feel for where everybody’s at. That decision ultimately comes down to you as a board. The consolidation stuff further down the road, that’s a matter of a public vote.”
Kunz said Oster “would take you as far as you want to go and is more than willing to help us through that.”
If after one public meeting the feeling is that a co-op and/or consolidation is not the right fit, Oster’s involvement can cease.
Oster’s fee if he were to take the districts all the way through the consolidation process is $9,800 split between the districts and prorated if talks end sooner.
“Any time you’re talking about if you can better your school it’s money well spent,” Kunz said.
“At least let Tom lay out the case in terms of both pros and cons,” said board member Slade Ammann. “That way the community will know all the facts.”
The board agreed by consensus to reopen the Marion conversation and hold a public meeting with Marion.