NEW: MEETING ON CO-OP REVEALS MORE QUESTIONS THAN ANSWERS
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
No action was taken and no decision was made, but members of the Freeman Public School Board gave a pretty good indication Monday night on where a possible sports cooperative with Freeman Academy and Marion stands:
There is support for it, but not enough time to put it in place for the 2021-22 school year.
That assessment is based on comments from all five Freeman School Board members at a special March 22 public meeting called to discuss the possible partnership with the district’s two closest neighboring schools.
Representatives from all three school districts had earlier this year drafted a proposed cooperative agreement in basketball, cross-country, golf, track and volleyball that would have initially run as a trial from 2021 to 2024.
Toward the end of Monday’s 1 hour, 40-minute meeting, when asked by a Freeman Public patron how they feel about the three-school co-op, board members answered with the following:
Slade Ammann: “I want it to work, but the devil’s in the details. I don’t know if we can get that figured out with the time we have.”
Cody Fransen: “Step back and look things over.”
Mark Miller: “It feels like a rush; to rush something through and make something work feels like it could cause more division. Think about it; let it settle in. There aren’t many decisions I’ve regretted making by waiting longer.”
Kyle Weier: “I’m in favor of it this year, or if it’s in the future. I think April is a very lofty goal.”
Corey Gall: “I’m for it, but there are some things we need to have answered. Even after my time on the board, I would still be for it. Great for three schools and two communities; especially for Freeman, that would bring the community even closer together.”
Public questions hurry
The comments by board members followed vocal support for the cooperative from most of those who spoke up at Monday’s meeting; there were about 30 in attendance (about 60 were watching online). But there was also a general feeling that not enough information is available to have a solid plan — and community support — in place in time for next year.
All of this comes just less than two months after representatives from Freeman Public, Academy and Marion first got together to discuss the idea of a partnership and less than three weeks after a possible agreement was reviewed by the Freeman School Board.
While a potential sports cooperative has been an agenda item at Freeman Public School Board meetings since October, the first meeting among representatives from all three schools took place on Jan. 27, with a working agreement in place in time for the board’s March 15 meeting.
A co-op starting in 2021 would have to be approved by the South Dakota High School Activities Association board of directors at its next meeting — on Wednesday, April 21.
“You think you can do this in two weeks?” asked Steve Friesen, a former school board president who has children who have graduated from the school and has grandchildren in the system. “If you’re going to do a co-op, you better have more answers than I’ve heard so far. I don’t see why we have to move this quickly. Wait a year. Does waiting a year make a difference?”
Others expressed concern that there weren’t more answers available at Monday’s meeting, including participation projections from all three schools, what financial impact a co-op would have on the district and what student sentiment was — at Freeman Public and also at the other schools involved.
And there were concerns about what the possibility of low participation could mean for playing in Class A — a jump that the three-school cooperative would have to make based on classification numbers used by the South Dakota High School Activities Association.
According to the Average Daily Membership (ADM) shared by Superintendent Kevin Kunz at the start of Monday’s meeting, Freeman Public is at 51.475 for the 2021-22 school year, Marion is 33.997 and Freeman Academy’s is 27.0 for a total of 112.472. The Class B/Class A cutoff is 89.999.
ADM take into account students in grades 9-11.
“We could end up playing in Class A and not gain a single kid,” said Kevin Auch, also a Freeman Public parent, who noted he’s heard rumors about Marion students transferring to Parker or Canistota if a local deal was made. “We would gain nothing.”
“How many kids will actually participate?” asked Doug McCune, a parent who has grade-school children in the district and will take a seat on the board in July. “Maybe we need to examine why we’re not getting the participation. Why can’t we keep kids involved?
Ryan Sorensen, a 1997 Freeman High School graduate and parent of three students at Freeman Public, spoke out in favor of the cooperative, but also wondered about unanswered questions.
“I am for this — these are the schools we should be looking at — but I do see everybody’s concern,” he said. “There are some good things to be had by doing it, but I get the feeling of being rushed.”
School officials said that Monday’s meeting was designed to present information to the public, hear public input, and move forward accordingly.
“We still have a lot of questions ourselves,” said Ammann, who equated Monday’s meeting to a “fact-finding mission.
“Tonight we were trying to get input,” he said.
The meeting was also a chance for the school to present pros and cons, as well as some of what the working agreement looks like. In a PowerPoint to open the meeting, Kunz showed potential positives:
Greater participation collectively
More playing time generally
Playing at appropriate level
Greater internal competition
And he also outlined some potential negatives:
Loss of home games
Longer days for students
Transition to Class A
Loss of enrollment
As for some of the questions being asked, Kunz said a lot of the information — like participation and in what region the cooperative would play — simply can’t be known at this point.
“I just don’t know if you’re going to get a lot of definitive answers without getting into it,” he said. “Some of the information you’re looking for, it’s hard to give a definitive answer right now. There’s a level of speculation involved.”
As for seeking student input, Kunz said Freeman Public “could certainly do that,” but suggested the results might not give a clear indication of what’s best for the bigger picture. He used the example of underclassman who might be against the cooperative simply because students might not get the varsity time he or she would otherwise have.
“You have to be careful about how much stake you put in that data,” he said.
As for the jump to Class A, Kunz said that offers positives, like students being able to play at their age-appropriate level and better competition internally.
“Is our goal only to win, or are we looking at the other intangibles?” he said, suggesting that other benefits may be “more important than winning.”
Another aspect to the sports conversation is the possibility of consolidation between Freeman Public and Marion, which is what prompted these discussions in the first place. With Marion looking for a long-term solution to enrollment concerns, the district approached Freeman Public last fall, and has also been in conversations with Parker, Marion’s neighbor to the east.
The Freeman board agreed to look at the possibility of both consolidation longer-term with a sports cooperative coming first. Tom Oster, who consults with school district on strategies, long-term planning and consolidation, outlined what that could look like in a special public meeting in early January. Early conversations indicated school reorganization between Freeman Public and Marion could be in place as early as the fall of 2023, although it would require approval from both school boards and an affirmative vote from patrons in both districts.
There have been differing opinions on whether the sports co-op and consolidation discussions should be held in tandem. Ammann says he views a sports co-op as a courtship while Lori Hofer, a district parent who spoke up at Monday’s meeting, said they were “two different beasts and should be treated as such.”
Hofer also endorsed an athletic partnership with Freeman Academy and Marion, noting she has had “100% positive” interactions with families from both schools.
And Laverne Diede, a former school administrator and member of the Freeman School Board, said she supported the sports co-op, and the district should leave it at that. “It’s a try,” she said. “I’m in favor of it; it’s a three-year try.”
McCune asked about what kind of ramifications the sports conversation would have on the consolidation discussion; “Does this speed up the process or delay things?” he asked.
Kunz said he doesn’t foresee a delay in the timeline that shows consolidation by 2023, although he said Oster suggested suspending further dialogue until new administration can be put in place at both schools; Kunz is resigning at the end of the June and Marion is without a permanent superintendent following the mid-year resignation of David Colberg earlier this year.
Another public meeting with Oster that had been scheduled for April 7 won’t likely happen, Kunz said.
While no action was taken Monday night, Kunz suggested the board make a decision quickly on whether to move forward with a sports co-op for this coming fall “as a courtesy to Freeman Academy and Marion.”
The board is scheduled to meet again in regular session Monday, April 12, although officials indicted a special meeting will likely be called before then.
Assuming Freeman Public suspends the conversation regarding an athletic partnership, students would play as Flyers again next school year while Freeman Academy and Marion will presumably return to action together as the Bearcats — a cooperative that was established in 2016. Marion had not renewed its commitment to the Bearcats co-op while engaged in conversations about a possible alternative.
Nathan Epp, head of school at Freeman Academy, attended Monday’s meeting and said their biggest challenge is in girls team athletics, but that they were able to make it work last year and should be able to again.
The most recent conversations about athletic partnership have not included football, soccer or wrestling. Freeman Public will continue its football co-op with Canistota until one of the schools sever ties, while Marion and Freeman Academy have been invited to attach to the Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan program for the foreseeable future.
The Marion/Freeman Rebels wrestling cooperative remains in place; that cooperative also includes student-athletes from Freeman Academy, Canistota and Menno;
And Freeman Academy Bobcats soccer continues, with students from Freeman Public and Marion invited to join the team.