Get back to us, Minnesota State High School League. Or else.

Frustrated by what they called a lack of meaningful dialogue, school leaders from a region representing 67 smaller metro-area schools sent a letter to the league last week and requested a conference call with executive director Erich Martens by Dec. 18.

The letter, from Region 4A, marked the latest response to the league's demand for considerably higher membership fees from member schools to help it navigate a year without state tournaments.

Without a meeting, Region 4A leaders said they would "encourage Region 4A schools to refrain from paying" their membership fees, according to the letter.

Region 4A is home to public, private and charter schools. Most of them were grouped in the A or AA enrollment classes used by the MSHSL to calculate membership fee amount. The first of two payments in the installment plan, ranging from $500 to $3,500 per school, is due Dec. 31.

In response, Martens and other league staff plan to meet with the nine-member Region 4A Task Force on Friday morning.

Kris Babler, activities director at Eagle Ridge Academy and Region 4A spokesperson, said the letter "was not really meant as a threat. But there are real budgetary concerns."

Pushback from Region 4A is about more than dollars and cents, Babler said. The group's initial letter sent to the league in November included calls for change to the governing body's communication process, bylaw language, and leadership structure.

"The schools in our region really want open, transparent communication and a commitment to see a vision for the Minnesota State High School League moving forward," Babler said. "That would go a long way to helping us navigate the reality of the financial situation."

The league had introduced new enrollment-based fees to generate about $3 million and combat a multimillion-dollar funding gap caused by forgoing state tournaments, its primary funding source.

Some leaders of smaller schools, including those in Region 4A, balked after the initial request came out in September. Schools were grouped and assessed fee amounts by enrollment, with many seeing increases of 300%.

The league reduced the amount in November after obtaining $500,000 from its foundation, using language approved in the bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature, that allowed a one-time transfer to offset losses created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Half the amount was used to reduce the contribution from the 378 smallest schools by enrollment.

As a result, most Region 4A schools will pay $137 less to almost $1,000 less than the previously proposed amounts.

The initial proposal drew letters of protest from Region 4A, three conferences, and a collection of metro-area Catholic schools. Martens followed up via phone and e-mail conversations with Rich Dippel, St. Croix Prep Academy activities director and then-Region 4A Task Force chair.

Dippel said those exchanges "were very positive. Our intent from the beginning was to help the league be successful. As member schools, we have to be successful for that to be a reality."

The league announced the fee reduction on Nov. 20. But other concerns raised in the Region 4A letter were not addressed.

"Our schools are different, yet we all feel there are issues that need to be taken seriously," Babler said. "We want a partnership; many of us find value in the Minnesota State High School League. We want to make sure while the ground is moving beneath us during the pandemic that we come out of this stronger."

Dippel, who stepped back from his task force chair role due to medical reasons, said "he didn't have much to do with" the more pointed Dec. 11 letter.

"St. Croix Prep Academy has made its first installment payment," Dippel said, "and we're moving forward."