MARION PARTNERSHIP ON THE TABLE
All five board members who represent the Freeman School District, along with Superintendent Kevin Kunz, spoke in favor of at least continuing the conversation about a possible partnership with Marion in terms of both sports cooperation and, later, consolidation.
The athletic co-op discussion would continue under the assumption that the Freeman/Canistota football partnership would continue on its own — at least in the short-term — with the possibility of Freeman and Marion establishing a brand-new school district anywhere from 18 to 24 months down the road.
That was the takeaway from a special public meeting of the Freeman School Board Monday night, Jan. 4 at the Freeman High School gym that featured a presentation from Tom Oster, whose firm, Dakota Education Consulting, has worked with 76 districts across South Dakota over the past 11 years in a variety of areas, from budget reviews to district reorganizations.
Monday’s special meeting was far more informational than it was conversational, and there were no presumptions from Oster or school representatives from Freeman as to how far the conversations would actually go. Instead, Oster used a 12-page PowerPoint presentation to set the stage for what future discussions could include.
Oster laid out three options for school reorganization:
1. Traditional consolidation, when two districts come together to form an entirely new district, complete with a new board of directors and entirely restructured staff. This requires approval from both boards and a public affirmation through a vote from patrons in both school districts;
2. Dissolve and attach, in which a district simply shuts down and its students enroll at a neighboring district;
3. Joint Powers Agreement (JPA), a relatively new option that allows for more creativity. Marion could, for example, choose to close its 6-12 attendance center — therefore eliminating staff — and send those students to Freeman Public, paying the Freeman School District an agreed-upon tuition for those students. This would have financial benefits for both districts, allow for increased opportunity for those students and enable Marion to keep an elementary school, and therefore its identity, Oster said.
Marion is trying to avoid a “dissolve and attach” scenario in which a decline in enrollment (100 or fewer) would make it impossible to operate as an independent district. Current enrollment stands at approximately 170 in grades K-12, and while there’s a long way to go until the district hits that 100-student mark, “they don’t want to wait until something like that happens.” Oster did speculate that Marion is stable enough to operate for at least five more years on its own. Its current enrollment is as follows: Grade 12 (14), 11 (11), 10 (15), 9 (10), 8 (13), 7 (13), 6 (13), 5 (15), 5 (15), 3 (17), 2 (10), 1 (15), K (15).
Freeman Public, meanwhile, has seen an increase in enrollment. Students in grades K-12 have grown from 303 in the fall of 2016 to 337 in the fall of 2020, with additional enrollees since October bringing that number to closer to 350. Projections show that trend will continue, Oster said.
“You could operate for a long time and not have to worry about dissolving or anything like that,” Oster said. “You’ve got a strong community — a much larger community to work with. There isn’t as much incentive for you to look at this as there is Marion.”
But there are advantages for Freeman, Oster said.
A partnership with Marion could include an expansion in courses offered, from a certified preschool program to CTE courses to the return of Family & Consumer Sciences (FACS) and the corresponding FCCLA program (which Freeman Public eliminated 10 years ago) to additional computer/technology and industrial arts courses).
“That’s a bucket list around the state that districts just can’t afford,” Oster said.
There would also be financial benefits, he said, from a reduction in administrative costs to improved district efficiency when it comes to class size to the possibility of a lower tax request; both Freeman Public and Marion are taking from a voter-approved opt-out.
While Oster noted that Freeman Public is “in a good financial position going forward” and that it’s “very likely you’ll be able to lower taxes going forward,” there are clearly financial benefits to a partnership with Marion.
“There will be cost savings — there will be,” Oster said, but noted the exact amount will be uncertain.
“We’re going to have to make some assumptions.”
Consolidation has its challenges, Oster said, the biggest being where students would attend class. He said one scenario in the Freeman/Marion discussion is that students in grades K-4 and 9-12 would go to school in Freeman while those in grades 5-8 would go to school in Marion.
“The elephant in the room is, if I’m a parent in Freeman, I live a half-a-block from the school and I have a fifth grader and I’ve just been told that my fifth grader has to get on a bus and go to Marion for four years before they can go back and walk across the street,” Oster said. “Or, I live across the school in Marion and I have a kindergartener, you’re going to tell me that, instead of my kindergartener walking across the street to the school is going to go on a bus to Freeman until fourth grade until they can come back to Freeman.
“It is a real deal and a real concern, and if you’re that parent, it is a big deal,” Oster said.
Other challenges include district names and mascots; Oster said he has seen agreements fall apart because of petty issues.
“Sometimes our emotions get the best of us,” he said.
Finally, Oster said, school boards from both districts must come to an agreement; that requires 18 months of discussion and multiple public meetings, approval from the South Dakota Department of Education and, finally, a public vote.
“It’s a long, drawn-out process, not to mention both communities would be voting,” Oster said. “That’s why these things are so hard to pass.”
Nobody in the room on Monday night spoke out in opposition of taking a closer look at a partnership with Marion.
“Personally, I would be in favor of a co-op and/or consolidation,” said Kyle Weier, board president.
Board members Slade Ammann, Mark Miller and Cody Fransen said they needed more public input before making a decision on how far to take this, with Miller noting, “I see pluses and minuses” and that “we’re here to represent the community.”
Corey Gall agreed, saying that he “need a lot more public feedback, but I’m very open to the possibility.”
Kunz agreed that “we should take it as far as the public would like us to go, at least from an informational standpoint and noted that this “is an extended process.”
But he did offer the strongest endorsement of the night in terms of a partnership with Marion.
“I think the sports thing would be a good idea,” he said.
Oster noted that Marion understands the football dilemma facing Freeman Public — the Freeman/Canistota Pride have won three straight nine-man titles in four years as a cooperative — but is excited about the possibility of a partnership elsewhere.
“They did tell me that if Freeman would be open to co-oping in all the other sports, they’re golden,” he said. “They would be tickled and delighted and very happy.”
Marion has been in a sports cooperative with Freeman Academy, although Oster said that has not been renewed for 2021-2022.
Kunz said Freeman Public officials have been in touch with Freeman Academy, who reached out to the district saying they would like to be part of the conversation regarding sports cooperation, although that has not been discussed among the full board.
Kunz also spoke in favor of consolidation with Marion on Monday.
“There’s some concern among some in the community that if we don’t look at this or try to pursue it, there’s going to be no direction for us to go,” he said. “Doing nothing puts you in a situation where you could get backed into a corner down the road.”
Steve Friesen, a former member and president of the Freeman School Board, encouraged the board to at least continue the conversation.
“I would appreciate you guys continuing to pursue it to see if there are benefits, and if there aren’t …” he said. “Don’t just let it drop and not talk about it again. I think it’s a good thing to look at.”
Kunz speculated on Monday night that both athletic cooperation and future consolation with Marion would be on the agenda for the regularly monthly meeting scheduled for Monday, Jan. 11.
The Jan. 4 special meeting can be viewed on the Freeman Public YouTube channel.