EDITORIAL:Â FOOTBALL DEAL THE RIGHT STEP FORWARD
Assuming the South Dakota High School Activities Association Board of Directors signs off on the deal early next month — and it almost assuredly will — local football fans can expect to cheer on a brand-new team starting in fall: The Freeman/Marion/Freeman Academy ___________________.
This is the latest from the ongoing sports consolidation discussion that went down early this week, when all three school boards approved a four-year partnership on the gridiron. This is a key step forward for football in Freeman, to be sure, but also sets the stage for the possibility of additional cooperation — something that is yet to be resolved.
Freeman Public, of course, presented and approved an all-sports proposal that was met with skepticism from Marion and Freeman Academy last month; and those schools have, in turn, presented a proposal of their own for consideration by Freeman Public.
That is expected to be discussed when the Freeman Public School Board meets in regular session Monday night, Feb. 14.
For context, it’s worth taking a look back on where this conversation has been — and speculating where it might be headed.
It was in the fall of 2020 that school officials from Freeman and Marion met informally with Tom Oster, a consultant specializing in long-term planning and consolidation among schools, to talk about the idea of a partnership. Then, in November of that year, Kevin Kunz, superintendent at Freeman Public at the time, asked if the board had any interest in continuing that conversation. It didn’t.
But at the board’s regular meeting in December of 2020, Kunz urged the board to reconsider, or at least make its position clear, after hearing some in the community wanted an explaination.
“If the board chooses not to pursue something with Marion, the community would appreciate getting some type of rational for why we wouldn’t want to do that,” he told the board. “And I thought that was fair.”
And that got the ball rolling.
On Jan. 4, a special public meeting was held at the high school gym and led by Oster, who outlined what a partnership could look like, focusing largely on the consolidation component. At that meeting, when asked about it by The Courier, Kunz said that Freeman Academy had been in contact with him about being included in the discussion.
Then at the board’s regular meeting one week later, the formal request came. “We would like to be active participants in any active discussion taking place,” said Freeman Academy Head of School Nathan Epp.
Then on Feb. 8, the Freeman School Board learned that a working document was in place for an all-sports cooperative that showed a 50/30/20 split for home activities between Freeman Academy, Marion and Freeman, but board members suggested more information needed to be obtained before taking the next step.
Another public meeting was held at the high school gym on March 22, this time without Oster, that raised questions about the rush to get a deal done. Most of those attending who spoke out questioned why there wasn’t more concrete information — especially from a financial perspective — and all five board members at the time said they favored slowing things down.
But on April 8, 2021, a joint public meeting of all three school boards revealed there was, in fact, a strong sentiment to get a deal done. This time, most speaking out spoke in favor of an all-sports agreement, which passed both the Freeman Academy and Marion school boards, but failed the Freeman Public board 3-2, with then-president Kyle Weier casting the deciding vote.
By July of 2021, Kunz had resigned his position as superintendent and in was Jake Tietje, who quickly reenergized a task force that had been inactive to study a possible partnership with neighboring districts. That led to a survey that went out in October to Freeman Public constituency that overwhelmingly — more than 80% — favored continuing the conversation about both sports and consolidation.
Letters were sent to Canistota, Marion, Menno and Freeman Academy, an administrative outreach that narrowed the field to — surprise! — Marion and Freeman Academy.
It was déjà vu all over again.
But things took a turn on Dec. 21 of last year when the Canistota School Board unexpectedly pulled the plug on what many thought would be a long-term football cooperative called the Pride.
Suddenly, Freeman Public was without a home for football — a reality that raised the stakes and no doubt instilled a sense of urgency on the Freeman Public Task Force that was still in place. That led to continued talks between the task force and school leadership from all three districts, and eventually a proposal from Freeman Public considered by all three boards at their respective January meetings.
While Freeman Public voted 4-1 to approve the deal, Freeman Academy and Marion both balked, largely, they said, because the home game split in basketball and volleyball — seven for Freeman, two for Marion and one for Freeman Academy — was not what had been discussed at previous meetings.
While things stalled, it wasn’t for long. On Feb. 2 — just last Wednesday — the same task force and school leadership gathered to revisit the conversation. That meeting produced a counteroffer from Marion and Freeman Academy that showed more balance: a 4-4-2 split between Freeman Public, Marion and Freeman Academy for home games in basketball and volleyball. More importantly, however, all parties agreed to fast-track football because of the pending deadline with the SDHSAA.
And that’s what led to the three-board approval earlier this week.
So what have we learned?
Well, certainly that open and honest discussion is valuable, and that things can get done when all parties involved recognize the benefit: i.e. – a brand new football team that three schools will be able to build from the ground up.
And that may, in fact, be the steppingstone that leads to something bigger. While the devil is certainly in the details, it’s notable that progress has been made, and that all those previous conversations going back almost 2 ½ years were not for naught.
And what comes next?
Hopefully a little clarity and possibly some incentive to advance the conversation even further. For now, football in Freeman finally has some direction.
If nothing else, that at least is something to feel good about.
Jeremy Waltner | Editor & Publisher