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School board questions increased MSHSL fees for districts

The Albert Lea school board on Monday voiced concern with an increase in Minnesota State High School League membership costs, which have almost tripled and include two new fees tied to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Albert Lea Superintendent Mike Funk said the district’s normal invoice to the league, which oversees sports and some activities across the state is $4,999, but the new invoice the district received was $13,999, including two new $4,500 fees — one due at the end of November and one at the end of February. The new fees were assigned based on enrollment numbers.

The seal of the Minnesota State High School League

Funk said the league was about $600,000 short from having to cancel some of its tournaments earlier this year. 

A letter sent out Sept. 3 from the league states the league is primarily funded through tournament ticket sales, member school dues and fees, sponsorship agreements and broadcast contracts. The organization is also required to hold reserves of at least 20 to 50% of its annual expenses. 

It stated the anticipated loss of 75% of its revenue due to the uncertainty of state tournament events created the need for adjustments in its finance model, so it created a task force to review and provide recommendations for developing its 2020-21 budget. 

Though he understands the league is short on revenue, Funk said he thinks that asking for significant increases from the districts when it is already a tight fiscal environment is hard for districts all over the state. 

There is also concern because the league has gone back and forth about whether to have sports during the pandemic. It recently decided to move ahead with football and volleyball, after previously voting to push the sports back. Funk said districts are still not receiving much direction from the league and still don’t know if there will be section tournaments or otherwise for fall sports. 

School board member Neal Skaar said the increases come at a bad time for school districts and asked what would happen if the district did not agree to pay the fees. 

Funk said that was unclear because it is unknown whether there will be section or state high school tournaments this year. 

School board member Ken Petersen said the issue was especially frustrating for him because of the district’s recent efforts to control activity fees and get more students involved. He asked what Funk has heard from other Big Nine schools. Funk said they are not happy with the fees either but will likely pay them.

A few of the school board members asked what the league has done to cut its own costs — whether through staffing or other means. 

“The school districts are not an open pocketbook for — for anyone, including this league,” said school board member Jill Marin. 

The letter from the league said it reduced its staff by four full-time employees through layoffs and retirements that were not rehired. It also placed a freeze on salaries for employees, reduced printing costs and is reducing costs by eliminating some in-person meetings and replacing them with online meetings. 

School board member Angie Hanson said she was frustrated the district was asked to pay more, though she feels it is getting back less from the league. 

Though the districts could pay for the increased costs through the CARES Act funds it received, board member Kim Nelson said she thinks those funds should be used for students in the classroom. 

Skaar said he thinks the high school league serves a necessary function and orchestrates rules among all schools in Minnesota but noted “tremendous costs” involved with arranging venues for tournaments, paying for officials and staff. He said he assumed those costs could be reduced substantially and is concerned that the fees will become permanent even after the pandemic. 

“Boy they have dropped the ball on a lot of things,” Skaar said. “They just have not looked good in this situation.”

Petersen motioned to pay the base $4,999 fee and then to wait to receive more explanation before paying the additional fees. 

The board directed Funk to write a letter to the league addressing concerns of the board regarding communication of fall sports, health of students and officials, whether the league has studied other venues for tournaments and whether the league could cut or furlough other state high school league staff.