5-SPORT CO-OPÂ FAILS BY ONE VOTE
JEREMY WALTNER – PUBLISHER
Despite hearing from a majority who spoke in favor of it, a five-sports, three-school cooperative between Freeman’s two schools and Marion failed to gain approval from the Freeman Public School Board last week.
Meeting jointly with the two other school boards in special session at the Freeman High School gym Thursday, April 8 — and after Marion and Freeman Academy boards passed the agreement unanimously — a motion from Slade Ammann and a second from Corey Gall to move ahead with the cooperative never received the third vote needed for approval, and failed 2-3.
Voting no were Mark Miller, Cody Fransen and Kyle Weier, who cast the decisive vote.
“In interest of the public input I’ve gotten I’m going to vote no,” said Weier, who agonized for more than 30 seconds before making his decision and was visibly emotional afterward, “but I really would like to keep working forward to push it through.”
After the vote, and at the encouragement of both Freeman Academy School Board President Lee Brockmueller and Head of School Nathan Epp, all three school boards agreed to put on their next agenda an item regarding the appointment of a task force to work toward an agreement beginning in 2022-23.
“I wonder if we can address continuing this discussion,” Brockmueller said — “setting up some kind of task force or committee and giving them a mandate to address some of the questions that the community has brought forward.”
Brockmueller and Weier both said they would see that it was on their next board agenda and Larry Langerock, board president in Marion, spoke in favor of continued discussions.
“Anything we can do,” he said. “I think there should be some sort of a format that would suggest that we’re going to move ahead. I can about picture that this will fall on its head for six, eight months and we’re right back here, hearing the same things, the same concerns. Something more concrete would be good to move forward with.”
The immediate discussion at hand dates back to last fall, when Marion school officials reached out to Freeman Public about consolidation and/or sports cooperation. Freeman Public initially declined, which prompted Marion to engage in conversations with Parker about consolidation, according to Matt Donlan, a member of the Marion School Board.
However, at the recommendation of Superintendent Kevin Kunz late last year, the Freeman School Board agreed to reconsider the Marion option. In early January, Tom Oster, who works with school districts on consolidation and long-term planning issues, led a special meeting hosted by Freeman Public on the matter. At that meeting, Oster said Marion was trying to avoid a “dissolve and attach” scenario in which the district would end its service, meaning families would need to find another school to join.
Not long after, representatives from Freeman Academy asked to be at the table for any conversations about sports partnership. Freeman Academy and Marion established a sports co-op in 2016 and have competed as the Bearcats in basketball, cross-country, golf, track and volleyball since, but Marion had not yet renewed that partnership for the 2021-22 school year.
All of that has culminated with recent talks about the three-school sports cooperative. As proposed through committee work between Freeman Public, Freeman Academy and Marion, the schools would team up in boys and girls basketball, cross-country, golf, track and volleyball for an initial three-year commitment beginning in the fall of 2021.
It was that proposed timeframe, however, that was of concern to some who have spoken out. During a special meeting of the Freeman School Board on March 22, most who shared during a public forum said they supported the cooperative, but this fall was too soon. And even members of the Freeman board suggested it might be best to wait until 2022-23.
Similar concerns were shared by a few who spoke out again at last week’s special joint meeting of the three boards.
“I’m not against a co-op,” said Chris Peters, a parent of three children in the Freeman Public School District. “Sports co-op with Marion? Freeman Academy? Great. Awesome. I’m all for it, and I’m all for eventual consolidation. I think it will bring the communities together.
“But,” he said, “this meeting feels like we’re still kicking the tires.”
Peters said details like GPA eligibility requirements and team mascot haven’t even been addressed.
“There are just way too many things that need to be ironed out,” he said. “As a parent, I feel like this co-op is being shoved down my throat. I know a lot of Freeman Public parents feel this way.”
“I like this meeting … let’s use this meeting to grow,” Peters continued. “Let’s do it the right way.
But Langerock said inking the deal and then working out details like a team name/mascot is wise; “There’s a reason we’re doing it in the order we’re doing it,” he said. “I don’t think it’s lack of preparation. It’s mind-boggling to me that it seems like it’s just too fast.
Oster agreed that establishing the cooperative and then working out the details is the right order in which to do things.
“People used to hammer out the school colors and the mascot before they ever had a vote on whether it was the right decision for the kids,” said Oster, who has a long history of cooperatives both as a school administrator and, later, a consultant. “Figuring out what the mascot is going to be is such a menial thing. The reasons schools no longer bring up the mascot (issue) is because they get so emotional.”
“The big questions here tonight is, is it the right thing to do for the kids?”
And, when asked directly by Freeman Public parent Amy Sorensen if there is enough time to have a co-op in play by fall, he said there absolutely was.
The South Dakota High School Activities Association would take up the application at its next meeting on Wednesday, April 21.
“(The SDHSAA) is the one that set the deadline,” Oster said. “If the boards vote (to do it) tonight, yes, there is enough time to do it; no question. That’s why the deadline is set the way it is.”
Others who questioned the co-op at last week’s meeting wanted to see the discussion more closely tied to talks of consolidation between Freeman Public and Marion.
“Originally when the co-op discussion took place it was an avenue to consolidation,” said Doug McCune, a parent in the district who will take a seat on the Freeman Public School Board in July. “Now consolidation appears to have taken a back seat.
“As a taxpayer, the benefit to Freeman Public would be consolidation,” he continued. We could share costs, share resources and bring programs back. A co-op really does nothing for that.”
“I will encourge you, if you are going to vote yes, to put a timeline in place for consolidation. If we’re not consolidated in three years, then the co-op has run it’s course and we’re done.”
Ryan Sorensen, also a taxpayer and parent in the Freeman Public School District, spoke in favor of a clear path to consolidation.
“If we co-op — and I’m in favor of it — I want to make sure we have our ducks in a row,” he said. “We might as well consolidate and fix our financial needs, fix our academic needs, get our classes back.”
Langerock said Marion was still strongly in favor of consolidation but thought it would be better for Freeman Public to use a co-op as a starting point.
“We’re here tonight talking sports co-op because the consolidation thing seemed like too much to bite off at once,” he said. “We’re very much in favor of it as a whole board; the trouble is, we saw stage fright — that it was too much too fast. So we backed off and said, ‘OK, how about a co-op?’ It’s definitely a stepping stone.
“At the end of three years, if it looks good and makes sense, consolidation is a very positive step forward from there.”
Matt Donlan, a member of the Marion School Board, said a co-op could lead to other things even aside from consolidation.
“We have a very good FCCLA program,” he said. “We could get our FFA and ag program going together and start sharing resources. I don’t want to just pigeonhole this to sports. I think Marion and Freeman should have a line of communication (open) at all times.
“Getting the sports co-op done kind of stabilizes everything,” he said. “Then we can start looking more at, how can we share this? There are things we can do to maybe save the districts a little bit of money and get the kids together doing other things.”
He called it, “a springboard.”
As for Freeman Public’s take on consolidation, a straw poll among Freeman Public board members, taken on the spot by Ammann after a patron wanted clarification on timeframe, indicated that four of the five board members quickly indicated they were in favor of consolidation in the next three years.
“I hope that clears that up,” Ammann said.
The other issue that arose in resistance to the three-school cooperative was the move from Class B to Class A. Oster said that, according to the South Dakota High School Activities Association, a co-op between Freeman’s two schools and Marion would most likely put them in Region 5A along with Andes Central/Dakota Christian, Bon Homme, Hanson, Mt. Vernon/Plankinton, Parkston, Sanborn Central/Woonsocket and Wagner. He noted that four of those seven teams — AC/DC, Bon Homme, Hanson and SC/Woonsocket — are transitioning from Class B to Class A next year.
“I grew up in a very small district that was Class A,” said McCune. “We are not ready for Class A sports. Not with the administration that’s in place; not with the coaches that are in place. By no stretch of the imagination. This will not improve the struggles. It’s going to drive more kids away.
But Oster said otherwise.
“I would respectively disagree with the comments about you not being ready,” he said. “I’ve been around and doing this for a long time; I coached for 30 years. It’s a misnomer that the level of competition is that much different.”
He cited the successful Canistota/Freeman football cooperative, which moved up a class from what Freeman would have been if it played independently, as an example.
And there are others.
“People thought that Mt. Vernon and Plankinton couldn’t compete when they moved to Class A and they’ve done very well,” Oster said. “People thought Bridgewater/Emery-Ethan couldn’t compete in football and they’ve done really well at the 11-man level.
“Don’t sell yourself short; I think you would be more competitive than you think,” he continued. “There’s no guarantee that if you co-op that you’re going to win a state championship, but that you can’t compete is just not accurate.”
And Lisa Andersen, a district taxpayer, wondered if Freeman Academy is included in consolidation talks and why there isn’t a conversation about football and soccer, too.
“It seems like we’re not all in,” she said.
But Oster said a public school cannot reorganize with a private institution like Freeman Academy — “that would be illegal — and Kunz and Epp said Marion and Freeman Public are already invited to play soccer with Freeman Academy.
“It’s basically already a three-school co-op for soccer,” Epp said.”
As for football, that was never part of the broader sports discussion because Freeman Public has a successful co-op with Canistota and Marion has come up with an arrangement to play with Bridgewater/Emery-Ethan until a consolidation can be put in place.
“I get your point,” Langerock said in response to Andersen. “It gets kind of confusing and it would be nice if we could get it all wrapped up in one big ball. Obviously, they have a successful co-op with Canistota and we did not want to, nor did we think we could, barge in on that situation. So we went out solely searching for somewhere for our boys to play football and we ended up with Bridgewater-Emery/Ethan and we’re very happy that happened.”
He said Marion is comfortable moving forward with a co-op in the other sports.
“I think all three schools would want to bring football in as soon as it makes sense and as soon as the public would accept it,” Langerock said, “but I understand you’re not going to get everything you want, and everything isn’t going to happen at the same time.
But this is a giant step in the right direction,” he continued, “so that eventually we can have just one co-op and we wouldn’t be split in different directions.
“This is as close as we’ve been (to that) in a long time.”
While there was some vocal resistance, the majority of those who spoke out at last Thursday’s special meeting were in favor of the cooperative. Of the 11 members of the public sharing their opinion, seven were supportive of the partnership starting in the fall of 2021.
Joyce Hofer told the board it’s high time to get the deal done.
“I’m proud of Freeman and I’m proud of my school,” she said. This discussion has gone on for 10-plus years. It’s time it comes to an end.”
Hofer noted Freeman Public has been in conversations about partnering with neighboring districts for years.
“We have the best of both worlds,” she said. “Menno on one side, Marion on the other, Freeman Academy across town. And we’re saying no?”
Hofer said there is great value in athletics.
“There’s something to be said about students participating in sports,” she told the board. “If you don’t have sports, you don’t have a school. If you don’t have a school, you don’t have a town. We’re wearing out our shoes dragging our feet. You’ve slept long enough. I hope tonight you will wake up and get with it.”
Suzanne Koerner, a parent and a coach at Freeman Academy, admitted it can be difficult to accept change, but a change in mindset can help see a new future more clearly.
“One thing that I’ve had to do is put my emotions aside — my pride aside — maybe even some prejudices aside, and that’s really hard to do,” she said. “When I’ve been able to do that is when I feel like I can look at it logically. And I think it is logical for us to co-op.
“I know it’s hard to give up one’s identity; when we co-oped with Marion we had to give up our Bobcats and Marion had to give up their Bears,” Koerner continued. “But in time you get used to that new identity and you can move forward. And that’s exciting to think about.”
Scott Dent, who has coached at all three schools, said a three-school cooperative would create greater competition internally.
“Where I see the disadvantage for the small schools is your top doesn’t get better,” he said. “If you’re the best kid in the gym in sixth grade, you’re probably the best kid in the gym in seventh, eighth, ninth … because there’s no one pushing you. What putting the schools together does is it makes the top compete. Over the past couple of years, I’ve watched some really talented kids in both Marion and Freeman not get better because they knew, when they walked into practice, they knew they had their spot.
“All of our kids will get better when they find out they have to sit the bench.”
Dent said a cooperative would also allow students to play at their age-appropriate level — “It’s a lot of wear and tear on our kids because they have to play up,” and he also spoke from the ministry perspective.
As a pastor in Marion who works with youth through the Church of God, Dent said he has seen firsthand what happens when kids from other communities come together.
“The kids get along,” he said. “Over the past couple of years, we’ve had an influx of Freeman kids and right at the beginning some of the Marion kids would make comments (like), ‘What are the Freeman kids doing here?’ It was the adults who had to say, ‘Everyone is welcome, now get along.
“A year in, nobody talks about it. Our kids in Marion and Freeman hang out all the time.”
“Let’s just do this,” said Kayla (Gossen) Witt, who lives in Marion and noted the long and successful wrestling cooperative Marion and Freeman have had — something that was around when she was in high school and something her brother benefited from.
“We have wrestled as Rebels for years,” she said. “That relationship has gone on for a long time and it has been positive. Why (are those other sports) that different? Why don’t we bring all of our assets into one bucket and make something really good? If we go Class A, awesome.”
She also said she has young girls who have danced together and played soccer with children from both communities.
“We have good kids,” Witt said. “It’s starting at preschool. I encourage all three boards to do this.”
Dan Graber is a Freeman Academy graduate who moved back to his home community with his family several years ago. He said given the trends of declining enrollment and smaller communities, a partnership just makes sense.
“The writing’s on the wall,” he said. “The towns across the Midwest are getting smaller and I think also that South Dakota has been behind in moving toward consolidation and moving toward more sports co-ops.
“This arrangement would be advantageous for everyone,” Graber continued. “It would be good for business. It would be good for the communities. It would be good for the competitive aspect of it. Freeman is not going to get any bigger. I hope that everybody really looks, not just at the next five years, but what’s going to happen in the next 20 years and keeps that in mind.”
Chad Cremer, a parent in Marion who has seen two boys graduate and has a freshman daughter, said a new cooperative could help with long-term expectations and continuity.
“Consistency counts,” he said. “We almost co-oped with Canistota and have played youth ball with Parker. We have been Cobras, Bears, Bearcats; where my boys have seen the most success was with the Rebels program,” he said. “A big part of that is consistency. It’s a well-established program and phenomenally run.”
Cremer would like to see some long-term stability to eliminate the revolving door of co-ops and coaches.
“It is unbelievably detrimental to play this co-op roulette,” he said. “We have been co-oped to death in my house and we’re tired.”
He said he hoped the time had finally come to take action that can and will lead to positive growth both in the short-term and long-term.
“I’ve been at these meetings before my kids were even in school, and my oldest is 24,” Cremer said. “I’ve been in a lot of these gyms; a lot of these meetings. I hope we can move forward and see eventual consolidation between the schools.”
It wasn’t just members of the public who voiced their support for a three-school cooperative.
Oster himself, who has been working closely with the Marion School District on long-range planning, said it was the right move.
“The goal is to build relationships and then work off of those relationships,” he said. “This is going to relationship-building. I have faith in the parents. I have faith in the communities. My goal is to make Marion look good and Freeman Public look good. That’s a win for all of us.”
Langerock and Epp both noted the strong cooperative Marion and Freeman Academy have enjoyed the past five seasons and that the only reason they are looking at something different is because of low numbers.
“We can’t have our kids participating at age-appropriate levels and so obviously when that become the issue, more numbers would help that,” he said. “The only thing that’s wrong is we’re short on kids.”
“We have had a great relationship with Marion,” Epp said. Moving in this direction has nothing to do with that relationship being negative in any way.”
“Lack of participation is hard to overcome,” he continued. “Adding a third school makes it more possible to have competitive teams.”
And, Epp noted, even when talks between Freeman Academy and Marion began, he saw the potential for something bigger.
“Way back when we started,” he said, “I was actually saying that we needed to start talking about three schools.”
But perhaps the strongest voice in favor of the sports cooperative came from Langerock, who has been on the Marion board for more than a dozen years and has seen co-op and consolidation discussions come and go.
“This ‘next year’ or ‘some other time’ has got me worn out,” he said. “I think now is the time. Sometimes we need to step out and do things that aren’t comfortable. But we never get anywhere if we don’t take a chance or do some aggressive thinking. Next year just doesn’t sound appetizing for me. Now is the time. I would sure appreciate it if all three boards would see it that way.” But it wasn’t to be.
“I think Freeman would be in a worse place because there’s not a clear consensus,” Miller said before voting “no” as part of the roll call vote taken by the Freeman School Board. “There’s not one clear road that everybody’s on right now. I think that idea of waiting and ironing some of those things out, bringing people all along, isn’t a bad idea.
“Tonight was really encouraging,” he continued, “but I felt like there were too many questions.”
Fransen did not offer comment at the meeting as to why he voted no, but the The Courier later that this just isn’t the right time.
“I’m not opposed to a co-op,” he said, “but as the school sits I just feel like there are other issues that need to be addressed first.”
After the failed vote, Oster told the boards they could immediately vote again to start the co-op in 2022-23, but that never happened.
“I feel like we need to have more discussion about the options that are available,” Marion School Board member Jen Ortman said.
At the start of the meeting, the Marion School Board was asked what course of action it would take should the co-op be voted down that night.
“If the answer is no, I guess we’ll do what most people have to do when things don’t go the right way — you struggle on,” said Langerock. “I’ve been on the board 13 years and I’ve always heard that next year sounds better than this year. Next year doesn’t sound very good to me because I’ve heard that too often. I think this is an awesome thing for all three schools, but we’ll obviously have to struggle on if it’s a ‘no.’”