See more of the story

Smaller schools in the Minnesota State High School League will pay 13% less in new fees than had been proposed in September to help the league in a year with no state tournaments budgeted.

The change, affecting 75% of the league’s 506 member schools, came after dozens of them complained about proposed new fees that they claimed hit them disproportionately harder than schools with larger enrollments.

The reductions came after the league secured $500,000 in COVID-19 relief from its foundation through language approved in the bonding bill passed by the Minnesota Legislature.

The league had proposed the new fees to combat a multimillion-dollar funding gap caused by forgoing state tournaments, its primary funding source. The latest reductions mean the 378 smallest schools by enrollment will pay from $27 less to almost $1,000 less than the previously proposed amounts.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced the emergency shutdown of basketball state tournaments in March and the loss of spring sports seasons. As fall sports resumed in August, the league approved a dramatically smaller 2020-21 budget that anticipated no revenue from state tournaments.

A Nov. 20 memorandum from the league to member schools outlined the contributions from schools amounting to a combined $2.86 million, more than half of the league’s $5 million budget.

The schools’ contribution is $250,000 less than what was asked of them in September. The league reduced the amount after obtaining $500,000 from its foundation, using language in the bill that allowed a one-time transfer to offset losses created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The rest of the money was set aside to assist the league’s 16 regions.

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

Letters from the Big South, Tomahawk and Tri-Metro conferences, as well as the 67 schools in Region 4A and a collection of metro-area Catholic schools, asked the league to rework its numbers to share the per-pupil burden more equitably.

The revised figures show, for example, 128 schools with enrollment of 205 to 568 students will each pay $6,044 instead of $7,000. The $27 drop applies to 46 schools with enrollment of 5 to 50 students. Larger schools will pay $9,000 to $11,000 each, unchanged since the September plan was rolled out.

While acknowledging that “smaller schools appreciate that the MSHSL recognized the inequity in their current methodology,” Springfield superintendent Keith Kottke said in an e-mail that the reduction means his school’s per-pupil fee dropped from $32.68 to $28.22, while fees for the state’s 64 largest schools are $4.88 per pupil.

Kevin Enerson, superintendent of Pipestone Area Schools, said Big South Conference school leaders were “displeased” because the league’s adjustment was “not the way we requested.” Still, he said, “I think most will pay the fee without further issue.”

Notified of the fee situation by some schools’ leaders, state Rep. Patrick Garofalo, R-Farmington, said: “It’s reasonable for the league to alter their revenue stream. But first, there should be a dramatic drop in expenses. As with most things in government, though, there is a reluctance to spend less money.”

The league, a nonprofit association, has deployed previous cost-cutting measures including the layoffs or retirements of four staff members, a 17% subtraction representing more than $400,000 in salary and benefits. The remaining 19.5 employees account for $2.9 million of the budget.

“The cuts are real; the cuts are deep,” league Executive Director Erich Martens recently told superintendents and school leaders on a virtual conference call. “They are impacting our effectiveness and the expectations have not been reduced at all.”

Employee salaries were frozen for the 2020-21 fiscal year. Last spring the league sought and received a Paycheck Protection Program loan of $790,000 intended to prevent additional layoffs. The league projects that more than $530,000 of the loan will be forgiven.

In addition, the league recently received commitments from some of its corporate sponsors to maintain their contributions. The amount of these commitments is $433,000. Those dollars will be held in reserve for expenses related to winter and spring tournaments, which are being considered for 2021.

Invoices for the new fees will be sent to schools Dec. 2; the first payments are due Dec. 31, the second payments Feb. 28, 2021.

Garofalo said, “The league exists to service students and schools, not the other way around. I’m not sure how they can justify asking more from schools. The league needs to shrink its footprint and cut costs. Instead, the league went to schools.”