Already besieged with e-mails from parents unhappy with how fall sports have been disrupted, the Minnesota State High School League is also hearing from school leaders concerned with fee increases that they say hit disproportionately harder on the state’s smallest schools.
The increases are the league’s attempt to fill a multimillion-dollar funding gap created when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted it to forgo this year’s state tournaments, its primary revenue source. As a result, the league has shifted the responsibility for its annual budget, which is projected to shrink from $9 million to $5 million this year, almost exclusively onto its 506 member schools.
The main feature of that shift is a new “COVID installment’’ membership fee, which collectively seeks more than $3 million in revenue from schools grouped in four enrollment classes. The 64 largest schools would each pay $11,000 this school year, according to notices sent to schools, and the smallest ones $1,000.
Executive Director Erich Martens said the league must “have a more reliable and guaranteed source of revenue” while state tournaments and related sponsorships are on hold.
“The majority of member schools haven’t said anything” about the COVID fee, Martens said, adding that some have expressed support because they “recognize the reality of the situation.”
But the way 41 schools see it, solving the league’s budget woes in an equitable manner should start with breaking numbers down to a per-student average. School leaders in the Big South and Tomahawk conferences in greater Minnesota, as well as the Tri-Metro Conference and a collection of metro-area Catholic schools, expressed that view in recent letters to the league.
Springfield superintendent Keith Kottke sent the league’s board of directors a spreadsheet to show how per-student fees would create what he and others believe to be a more equitable plan.
The league proposal requests schools averaging 153 to 386 students to pay about the same percentage of the total membership fees as schools with enrollments almost seven times larger. The 138 schools in Springfield’s enrollment class will contribute $690,000 (22%) compared to $704,000 (23%) from the largest 64 schools.
“They need to rework the problem,” Kottke said. “There’s a lot of ways to look at this and say, ‘This doesn’t pass the smell test.’ ”
Dollars and sense
Kottke said the 138 schools in Springfield’s enrollment class would pay an average of $32.86 per student. The largest schools, averaging 2,255 students, would pay only $4.88 per student, he calculated.
“Schools are funded by the amount of pupils we serve and the most equitable fee structure should be charged similarly [per pupil] and not the skewed range presented,” according to the letter on behalf of Tomahawk Conference schools leaders.
Kottke, one of the nine leaders representing Tomahawk Conference schools, sent the league’s board of directors a revenue proposal with each class of schools paying a percentage of dollars equal to the percentage of students.
Kottke’s model set the average per-student fee at $11.16 across the board. For the 64 largest schools by enrollment, that would mean an additional $14,166 per school and drive the big-school membership fee upward of $25,000. As a group, those schools would provide about half of the league’s COVID membership fees. No other group of schools would represent more than 21% of total league revenue.
The per-student model would fix “a regressive system where the smallest schools pay exponentially more per student than large schools,” according to the letter from 10 metro-area Catholic schools.
Martens, on a virtual conference call last Friday with superintendents and school leaders, said a per-student fee model, the standard for public schools and some private schools, isn’t the MSHSL’s way of doing things. But, he added, “that is a metric by which that can be looked at.”
Two additional virtual conference calls take place this week with superintendents and school leaders as the league explains its situation.
St. Croix Lutheran President Todd A. Russ, whose West St. Paul school is bracing for a 300% increase in fees when the higher membership fees are due, took issue with what he heard last Friday during a 70-minute virtual presentation by Martens and MSHSL assistant director Rich Matter.
“They gave us reasons to justify what they’re doing without really wanting to hear us,” Russ said. “These are individuals who are well-insulated, out of touch, and in self-preservation mode. This is a monopoly and being leveraged as such.”
The league had been shifting more funding burden onto schools even before the coronavirus pandemic canceled the boys’ and most of the girls’ basketball state tournaments, the spring sports season and this year’s fall state tournaments.
In February, the league approved higher fees for school membership, activities offered and a new $1 per-student fee.
As for the proposed COVID membership fees, Martens said the league’s need for those dollars could extended into next school year. He said during Friday’s presentation “we would fully anticipate” schools seeing their fees staying “higher than they’ve been in the past … because it’s not going to be a flip of the switch back to the way it was.”
A letter on behalf of 13 superintendents in the Big South Conference stated “significant concern as to how the MSHSL has gotten to this financial hardship.” They also sought to add a representative of the superintendents to the league’s board.
Deb Henton, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators (MASA), is making a similar push. While superintendents occasionally serve on the league’s board, Henton seeks two permanent seats.
“Superintendents are the ones who craft the budgets, we are the ones who report to our school boards,” Henton said, adding that discussion to add two permanent seats are underway.
Martens held a virtual meeting with Henton and the MASA earlier in October. Those meetings, separate of the ones taking place this week, also will be held in November and December.
“If you just pass a bill on, people are going to ask a lot of questions,” Kottke said. “I’m hoping the MSHSL would look at their budget like we would, knowing taxpayers are our stakeholders.
‘‘Communication is of the utmost importance and some of that has been lost through this process.”