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Group meets in Ottertail to discuss high school activities

By John George

Who says the media can't spark change?

When Minneapolis Star-Tribune high school reporter John Millea wrote a series of articles about how the financial crunch affecting schools, large and small. Activity fees will be in the range of $250-400 per student, per activity, at many schools already this fall. The cutting of staple sports like baseball, softball and golf, as well as many activities like band, choir, speech, are being cut across the state, and are on the cutting board in many other districts.

That series opened some eyes, and got people thinking.

One of those people who starting thinking was Perham's Activities Director, Fred Sailer. Sailer is President of the state's Athletic Director's Association. Sailer said he thought something should, but didn't know where to start.

"So I?just started," he told the group he assembled at Thumper Pond Golf Course in Ottertail last Thursday. He added he just wanted to put together capable people and just start hashing out ideas. That's what they were there for on Thursday, not just to catch a glimpse of O.J. Simpson (who, by coincidence, was playing golf at Thumper Pond at the time of the meeting.)

The group Sailer gathered included Dave Stead of the Minnesota State High School League, State Senator Dan Skoogen, high school athletic directors and administrators, teachers, coaches and lobbyists representing K-12 Education at the State Capitol.

As Millea stated in his article in the Star-Tribune last Friday, "The problem, unlike the solution, is easy to identify: More funds are needed, somehow, someway, to keep school activities alive."

It may be hard for some book-worm types, or people who just didn't have extracurricular activities available, to understand their value. From my own personal standpoint, I learned more about how to deal with life and relate to people as a part of the basketball team and marching band than I ever learned in a math class, or science class.

Don't get me wrong, math and science are very important, as all are all courses of study...including extra-curriculars.

We're not just talking about funding the football team, we're talking about band, speech and drama. Activities that offer a valuable education outside the classroom.

So, how do we fix the growing problem about funding these activities?

The group meeting at Thumper Pond didn't come up with any quick fixes. They did generate some interesting options by "thinking outside the box". Things like a dedicated sales tax, a state lottery, similar to one used in North Carolina, the ability for local districts to hold referendums strictly to raise money for activities. Ideas like taxing purchases made at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Airport and taxing internet sales and clothing were also discussed.

Not every idea was based on raising taxes. Endowment funds and fundraising were brought to the table, as well as "7th hour" activities and corporate sponsorships.

It's easy to say let the kids and parents involved in those activities should pay for them, in the form of activity fees.

Well, they already do, in part. But by continuing to raise the activity fees, the schools will soon be eliminating huge portions of the student population from taking part in activities, because their families just can't afford them. Then band, basketball and one-act play become the activities of the elite. Take a look at Crosby-Ironton and Brainerd, where activity fees will exceed $300 per sport.

Sailer said they weren't looking for any quick fixes at Wednesday's meeting. This group, which Sailer plans on gathering again, is looking for long-term solutions. Solutions that will be as beneficial to future Yellowjacket and Eagle athletes, as they are to kids in Duluth, Rochester and Minneapolis.

Equality is a big issue, Sailer added to some of his comments to the group. Big city to small town, rich kid to poor kid.

"It's not going to be cheap, and it may take some time," Sailer said. "But it's the right thing to do. And it needs to be done to save activities in our public schools."