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High School Sports: Costs soar for area athletic budgets

The Minnesota State High School League, with budget issues because of COVID-19, increases fees to schools

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New London-Spicer High School has seen athletic fees charged by the Minnesota State High School League go up by 373 percent in 2020-21. Tribune file photo

Schools around the state of Minnesota are dealing with plenty of sticker shock with Minnesota State High School League membership fees.

With the MSHSL’s budget shrinking from $9 million to $5 million after losing state tournament revenue from the boys and girls state basketball tournaments as well as state tournaments from the spring, the league is charging its members a COVID-19 installment fee along with other increases approved in February.

New London-Spicer activities director John Vraa serves on the MSHSL’s board of directors. Even before coronavirus, the league needed to make changes to what board treasurer Tom Jerome called in July “an unsustainable and in some ways archaic” financial approach, according to the Star Tribune.

“That’s the way it worked for a number of years for the High School League where 80 percent of the revenue came from state tournaments,” Vraa said. “But that’s a scary model to live by if you’re not generating as much money from your tournaments, if you’re not generating as many sponsors as you did previously.”

In February, the board of directors unanimously approved raising each school’s annual membership fee from $120 to $160 while also raising the per-activity fee from $120 to $160. A $1-per-student enrolled fee was also added.

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Some of the factors for the February raises were, according to Vraa, the loss of a major sponsor to the tune of $200,000, revenue declines from previous state tournaments and starting a two-year, $400,000 overhaul of the MSHSL website. The league made cuts to the budget, including going from 23.5 employees to 19.5 as well as discontinuing printed material like bulletins and state tournament programs.

“This was pre-COVID,” Vraa said. “So you throw COVID on top of that, so no boys basketball tournament and half a girls basketball tournament, and you can see all of a sudden where all the dollars add up.”

The COVID installment fee ranges from $11,000 for the state’s largest schools to $1,000 for the smallest.

Willmar’s bill sits at $14,645, with $4,480 in total activities, the $160 membership fee, $1,005 per student fee and $9,000 for the COVID installment fee. The $9,000 will be paid in two installments: between Oct. 15 and Nov. 30 and after Jan. 1, 2021.

“COVID gets wrapped into it, but at the end of the day, the high school league had a pretty antiquated budget system having to rely on ticket sales to fund their operation. That’s not a great plan,” said Willmar activities director Ryan Blahosky. “This probably brings their funding mechanisms more stability; there’s more guarantees in there. There were financial struggles before COVID hit.”

NLS originally saw its fee increase from $3,000 a year ago to $4,200 after the February increases. The COVID fee tacked on an extra $7,000 to put NLS’ fee at $11,200 for a 373-percent increase.

“I see both sides to it,” Vraa said. “We had a board meeting (last week) and I got a lot of questions from our board. In our situation, the board is very supportive of the state high school league. ... But at the same time, they’re saying this is $7,000 we didn’t budget for and where do we find it? We’re getting some COVID relief money through CARES and other places but that funding is not even funding the additional costs we’re incurring because of the different types of learning we have, the increased transportation, all the different things every district is doing.”

Max Meagher, Paynesville activities director/dean of students, said the school saw a $7,000 increase, putting the total bill at about $11,000. Meagher said the school board had the membership fees on its agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.

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The fee increase combined with the league’s decision in August to move football and volleyball, the state’s most popular fall sports, to the spring led to some increased frustration. On Monday, the MSHSL reversed its decision on football and volleyball, moving the sports back to the fall with the seasons getting underway on Sept. 28.

“If that’s what we’re doing (increasing fees), the league needs to fight for what the school wants out of it,” Meagher said. “From the standpoint of continuing to want the league, the best option is to have extracurricular activities, but the expectation is for the league to provide them.

“If we’re going to be paying for benefits from the league, which are great for our student-athletes, we need to get the most out of that as we can.”

The MSHSL budget for 2020-21 lists school registration fees climbing from $1,216,000 to $5,000,000, according to the Grand Forks Herald. State tournaments are not included on this year’s budget. Since the MSHSL is a non-profit, Vraa said if state tournaments happen, the revenue would be distributed back to the schools.

“We could see that $9,000 come back if everything worked out right,” Blahosky said. “If the league had a good year, through ticket sales and exceeding the budget, they have a plan to pay back to members. This year, not having the expense of rent and paying officials for state, I’m not sure how much of that $9,000 they’ll use.”

Vraa added, “I can tell you that the taskforce that worked on it included two superintendents, business managers across the state and league staff. There were a number of really, really good people that know school finance. I know it wasn’t a bunch of non-school people that don’t understand school finance.”

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