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School board voices continued concerns over MSHSL fees

Albert Lea school board members expressed continued concern Monday night with increased Minnesota State High School League membership costs, saying they were disappointed they have not received more answers from the league about its management decisions.

School districts across the state are facing significant increases in their membership costs, including two new fees tied to the COVID-19 pandemic. For Albert Lea, specifically, the fees have increased from about $4,999 to about $13,999, including two new $4,500 fees — one due at the end of November and one at the end of February.

The board at the end of September voted to pay the the base $4,999 fee but then to table the payment of the other costs until they could receive more information from the league.

In a letter directed by the board on Sept. 29 to Erich Martens, MSHSL executive director, Superintendent Mike Funk said the board had concerns about the league’s communication and indecisiveness, about the health of students and officials, and about the costs the league is spending on personnel and venues for state tournaments and questioned whether reductions needed to be made.

“If our district is going to consider these additional costs, we need to be assured that the league will develop a plan, communicate the plan, commit to the plan as much as the pandemic allows and operate in an effective and efficient manner,” Funk wrote. “When our district receives assurance of these things from the league offices, the board will revisit the request for additional funding.”

A response from Martens said the league had received a number of emails asking questions and seeking additional information about the league’s finances. It said the MSHSL board of directors has recognized the concerns of members schools and spent additional time discussing the concerns at meetings Sept. 21 and Oct. 1.

Martens said he has been directed to continue to engage with the Minnesota Association of School Administrators and Minnesota School Boards Association about the concerns and will provide virtual engagement sessions Oct. 23, 27 and 29 for school board members and administrators to learn more and pose questions.

“It remains the mission of the Minnesota State High School League to provide education-based opportunities for students and to lead, support and govern the activities that are provided,” Martens wrote. “The involvement and full participation of all member schools remains critical to the success of our organization.”

Several of the school board members said they didn’t feel like the response addressed any of their concerns and said they did not support paying the additional fees without getting those questions answered.

School board member Dennis Dieser said he has been concerned seeing the changes the league has made in the different sports seasons this year — even on a weekly basis — about whether the seasons were happening and whether spectators were allowed.

“It’s very frustrating as a community to see it happening right now,” Dieser said, noting that it also strains the relationships with athletic directors.

School board chairman Dave Klatt said he thinks the league should have set clear standards from the start and not have made such major adjustments to its plans.

School board member Jill Marin said with time running short to make another payment, she believed it was time for the district to move toward some type of negotiations with the league. She said it doesn’t make sense to give in and pay all of the extra fees without proper explanation and a plan in place.

“To me, there’s no proper accountability behind it,” she said.

She asked whether it would be helpful for member schools to band together and express a united front of disapproval with the league.

Board member Neal Skaar said there needs to be an instrument in place so the league and member schools can negotiate. He expressed concern with the league increasing its fees with no recourse.

“This has been an area of frustration for me as a coach for quite some time,” he said.

Board members and Funk also expressed disappointment in the notion that districts could simply use some of their CARES Act funds to pay the fees without addressing how the organization is being handled.

The board opted to continue forward without approving the additional fees in hopes of receiving additional answers from the league.

School board member Kim Nelson said she planned to attend the first engagement session with the league and would send out her notes from the meeting afterward.