After a strong showing of opposition from members of the public, the Frederick Area School Board voted to table a motion to dissolve the co-op with Leola for volleyball and girls and boys basketball at its meeting Jan. 9.
The board sent out a letter first to families of students involved in the affected sports on Jan. 5. “Like many small schools, we are trying to figure out ways in which we can try to increase our enrollment numbers while doing what is best for our current students,” the letter said. “We feel we may possibly be able to draw more students to our district if we aren’t in an athletic coop and all our practices and games are held here in Frederick.”
It further stated that the decision to dissolve the co-op would be formalized at the Jan. 9 meeting.
The meeting had been moved to the gym from the regular location of the school library to accommodate the roughly 100 people in attendance. Fourteen people spoke during the time allowed for public comment, all speaking against the proposed dissolution of the co-op, or at the least asking for more time and a more inclusive process before the decision is made.
While most speakers were Leola residents, many had ties in both communities. Several former and current coaches spoke, and one student athlete gave her opinion.
ReEtta Sieh, president of the Leola School Board, started the meeting with a statement from the Leola School Board stating that the board opposed the dissolution. “We would also like the public to know that at no time was this brought to our attention. Every joint board meeting, it was said that both sides were committed to making the Leola-Frederick co-op work,” Sieh said. “We feel the abrupt timing of the motion to dissolve is not in the best interest of either school or community.”
Sieh added that the plan outlined in the Jan. 5 letter from the Frederick Area School Board—that the co-op would remain for football but would be dissolved for the other sports—was not acceptable to the Leola School Board.
“It is the position of the Leola School District that this is an all-or-nothing agreement. We will not co-op for football if we are not co-oped in basketball and volleyball,” Sieh said.
Sieh asked what reason was being given for dissolving the co-op on the application to the South Dakota High School Activities Association. No answer was provided during Sieh’s comment period. (Board members typically make no comment during the public comment period.)
Themes address process as well as the proposal itself
The public comment period lasted about 45 minutes. While the speakers emphasized different things, some common themes emerged:
The co-op has been successful. Troy Podoll, former head girls basketball coach who coached junior high girls this fall and his helping with the varsity and JV teams currently, pointed out the banner on the wall from the 2015-16 team he coached, which was the most recent girls team to go to the state tournament. He spoke about the excitement and electricity that was generated during that team’s season. “I can tell you with absolute certainty that that banner would not be there if not for Leola,” he said.
Neil Geffre described the friendships that were formed among athletes during the years that he coached. “They still do things together,” he said.
David Clark of Frederick said that while he has tried to learn more to understand the reasoning of the dissolution plan, he cannot at this time support it. “The co-op’s been a very positive experience for our kids,” he said.
Residents of the community, and especially kids, have been hurt by the decision. “Gentlemen, you’ve formed a rift here,” said Leola resident Mark Lapka (who introduced himself as “Holly’s husband”) to start his comments.
Leola resident Chad Weiszhaar said he had a difficult conversation at home. “My kids come up to me last night, ‘Dad, what are we going to do? What’s going to happen to us? Are we gonna get to play sports with our other friends?” he said. “I’m like, ‘I don’t know, guys. Time’s gonna tell, we’re gonna see what happens.’ It’s hard to look at a 10- and 13-year-old and tell them that.”
Bryson Thorpe, who went to school in Leola and who now coaches junior high in Frederick, saw the kids he coaches upset by the decision. “I’ve always coached those boys as Titans—I’ve never coached them as Leola. I’ve never coached them as Frederick. And it hurts to see them hurt,” he said.
Kristi Spitzer, a member of the Leola School Board, said the dissolution of the co-op would force difficult decisions for student athletes. “The sad thing is, one of the assumptions is that we’re competing for some of the same students. And if that’s accurate, again, keep in mind what’s best for the students,” she said. “Why would you have students choose between their love of sports and staying with their friends and their loyalty to their own community? I think that is an impossible thing to ask students and families to do. And if that’s the case, then shame on you.”
The timing between the notice and the vote was too short. “We felt like we just got hammered,” said John Bender of Leola.
Current student athlete Trinity Lechner of Leola urged the board to take more time in making the decision. “This is going to affect all of us,” she said. “Don’t make decisions rashly.”
Chad Weiszhaar was one of several who spoke using the metaphor of severed relationships. “For me, it’s really simple. The time given was not enough,” he said. “I think I’ll speak for everybody here—four or five days to break up a 20-year marriage, it’s not enough.”
Carli Flemmer, who said she considers herself a part of the Leola and Frederick community together, asked the board to postpone the decision to allow for more time to gather information and to clear up assumptions and rumors.
The decision-making process should have included input from stakeholders. This idea generated some of the more pointed comments of the evening. “Perhaps most infuriating was when I asked (board members) what feedback was gathered from your community of Frederick via survey, a poll, or open discussion, I was told, ‘We didn’t have to ask.’ Frederick School District, those were the actual words of your elected school board members,” said Leola resident Anna Wyly. She then cited a guide for school boards that stated board members have a responsibility to communicate with their staff, students, and community members. “As boards, you represent your communities. You cannot represent your community when you do not have their input. You should have brought the stakeholders into the discussion.”
Mark Lapka made a request for more conversation. “Communication is the solution to all forms of conflict. And there was no communication. This was delivered cold,” Lapka said. “It’s not a good look.”
In a different process-related concern, Nathan Hoffman of Leola asked the board to forgo the decision in part because he said “there’s a strong argument to be made” that three of the board members have a conflict of interest because they are fathers of student athletes who might benefit from the decision with additional playing time and so, according to board policy, should not vote on the decision.
Logistics seemingly haven’t been considered. “We have one gym that we’re in right now,” Bryson Thorpe said. “Who wants to send their kid out on the road at five o’clock in the morning for basketball practice? Because that’s how it’s gonna be. You’re gonna have one practice in the morning, and one’s gonna be at night. And I don’t feel that that’s very attractive (to potential open-enrolled students).”
Two small schools need one another and may need one another more in the future. Trevor Zantow, a member of the Leola School Board, said the two communities are in essentially the same situation. “The Leola School District doesn’t need Frederick. The Leola athletic teams need Frederick. You are far and away our best option. And I don’t think I’m wrong in saying the Frederick sports teams need Leola. We are your best option as well,” Zantow said. “If you divide us, that’s going to make a very deep divide amongst two very small neighboring communities. I don’t think that’s a good idea for anybody. We need each other. You need us just as much as we need you.”
Mark Lapka sees the greater concern coming in a decade or two. “We’re not going to be talking about if we have enough kids between schools to have a sports team. We’re going to be talking to do we have enough kids between the two towns to even have a school,” he said. “That’s where Leola and Frederick mesh very well together. We’re close enough, we have an established relationship because of this sports co-op to potentially move forward. If you tear that all down, you’re going to take that rift and tear it into a giant divide that I’m afraid there’s no coming back from.”
The Frederick Area board did not directly address any of the comments made by community members and moved on to the action item of dissolving the co-op. A motion to table the item was made, seconded, and carried. When the board might raise the issue again was not stated. Many of those in attendance applauded after the decision was tabled.
—Story and photos by Heidi Marttila-Losure