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Future of Middle School sports programs debated by Willmar school brass; cuts made earlier in year

WILLMAR -- Middle school sports in Willmar could be changing even more in the coming years, as school budgets leave less room for spending on extra-curricular activities.

The Willmar School board discussed the issue at a workshop meeting this week. No official action was taken at that meeting.

Earlier this spring the board cut school spending for golf, soccer, tennis and swimming at the Willmar Middle School. Those activities will be taken over by Willmar Community Education and Recreation in the next school year.

Families will pay more for students to participate in remaining sports next year, and travel to out-of-town competitions will be reduced.

The School Board made those changes as part of a $1.8 million package of budget cuts for the next school year. The board had discussed eliminating all Middle School sports but did not go that far.

WCER Director Steve Brisendine said that details are still being worked out on how those activities will be handled.

If the district turned over all Middle School sports to WCER, they would look different, Brisendine said.

Sports associations would probably be more involved, and the programs would have to break even, he said.

Parents may have to provide transportation for students.

Questions about fees, how coaches would be paid, practice times and locations would all need to be answered.

Now, the school can say that students must maintain their grades or follow school rules to participate in sports.

That leverage could be lost with a community education program, he said.

"It will be much different" if WCER takes over middle school sports, Brisendine said. "I believe it's best the way it is now."

Middle School Principal Mark Miley said the academic requirements for participation are important for the school. Another concern would be the number of students from low-income families who might have trouble participating, he said.

Miley said he was concerned about practice times, too, if they are held later in the day. "At 2:30, what are you going to do with all those students," he asked.

"This is going to be an issue," said board member Mike Carlson. Many school districts are talking about changing middle school sports as a way to save money, he said.

"I'm an old coach and an old (athletic director)," said Superintendent Jerry Kjergaard. "I know how important it is, but there's a large portion of the world that does not run things this way."

Kjergaard said he would be reluctant to see the Middle School lose its sports programs, "but I think it needs to be discussed."

Board member Sandi Unger said she believed kids at the Middle School need the after-school activities.

"I think we are going to see a lot of districts move away from middle school activities," Kjergaard said. "We can't charge enough to make it self-supporting."

Brisendine said his department will do what it can if the board needs to cut some programs.

"As times change, we'll adapt to the task at hand," he said. "Cooperation will be key."

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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