Although the Minneapolis Public School (MPS) district’s year is soon ending, school board and district officials are already dealing with a tight budget for 2017-2018. According to communications director Gail Plewacki, “We have a multi-million dollar gap for next year.”
Less money means less money for sports; the athletic department is facing a 10 percent cut. That displeases some middle school parents, who were already unhappy about losing team sports programs at their home schools.
But the school board also had some good news for the East Side. Prompted by complaints of inequitable athletics funding from the Edison Activity Council, last month the board promised more resources for Edison and other underserved communities.
Middle school sports
For middle-schoolers in Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS), most extra-curricular team sports programs had already left their buildings. At Northeast Middle School and Marcy Open, for example, few student athletes practiced in the gym after school. Instead, they boarded buses headed to Edison High School or the National Sports Center in Blaine. (All schools still use their gymnasiums for physical education classes and a variety of after-school activities.)
Two years ago, MPS made major funding cuts across the board. Marcy Open principal Donna Andrews said the sports programs underwent dramatic changes.“We used to have flag football for boys, volleyball for girls, basketball in the winter for boys and girls, and baseball and softball in the spring. Teams played against each other at their schools. We had a lot of families come to school games to support their kids.
“But two years ago, at the drop of a hat, somebody [at the district office] said, ‘You have to cut the program.’ They chopped it all up and told us really late,” she added. The change meant that middle school teams—with the exception of track and basketball–were no longer based at their schools. Students would play at the high school.
“It was very different,” Andrews said. “The amount of work involved was ridiculous. The high schools weren’t prepared for the middle schoolers to come to them. My strong K-8 community of the parents who were interested in their kids playing sports wanted to participate. They wanted to have input.”
Some parents told her that they didn’t like the busing. Sometimes the buses didn’t show up, and they ended up driving their children to Edison. Some (a group called “Minneapolis Middle School Students and Parents for Sports in Middle Schools’) signed a petition that they sent to Senator Amy Klobuchar and MPS, complaining that practices at the high schools are later in the day or evening, and their students are competing against older, more mature kids.
Last week, a group of parents met at Marcy Open School, 415 4th St. SE, to discuss their concerns with MPS athletic director Trent Tucker and assistant athletic director Dave Wicker. Tucker told them that there would be two middle school-based sports in 2017-2018: co-ed soccer and boys and girls basketball.
Co-ed soccer wouldn’t actually be happening at the middle schools; students board buses for the National Sports Center in Blaine, 1700 105th Ave. NE. The sports center partners with MPS and hosts a grade 6-8 soccer league. Tucker said that public schools don’t own a lot of green space; the Blaine center is large enough to accommodate all 19 MPS middle schools. “It’s a good facility, and a positive thing for MPS. I know there are concerns about the long drive, but the kids have enjoyed it.”
A major change for 2017-2018 is that while the district will continue to fund buses to Blaine, it is cutting bus transport for middle schoolers to high schools. “That will be the parents’ responsibility,” Wicker said.
All other sports, including volleyball, softball, and baseball, would continue to be offered at Edison High School. “The financial situation is driving a lot of our decisions,” Tucker said.
Wicker said that the costs for an athletic program include a coach, transportation, officials, and in some cases, a school engineer.
Some parents said that they thought that the schools have lost many potential athletes because of the change. A Yang, who coaches Marcy girls on a volleyball team that plays at Edison, said that communication from the district was not good. “Because of last minute communication, a lot of schools lost players all across the city. We felt in this season that we didn’t have a lot of freshmen coming in, which was due directly to not having eighth grade and middle school sports.”
Tucker himself expressed frustration over the budget and the fate of sports programs at all grade levels. He said, “We feel your pain and understand where you’re coming from. I see the benefit of athletics. Last year, we graduated 99 percent of our student athletes, district-wide, with a 3.15 GPA. We’ve seen participation numbers go up and we want that to be a part of the future as well.”
Financial realities, inequities
Greg Oliver, a Northeast resident who chairs the Edison Activity Council, said that his daughters had attended Northeast Middle School and played varsity sports in seventh and eighth grades. “There is no rule that prevents seventh and eighth graders from participating at the varsity level in some sports. There are teams for middle schoolers. What the district has done is try to consolidate administration. Instead of having an athletic director coordinate middle school sports at Northeast and Marcy, kids participate at their attendance area high school.”
Oliver said, “I empathize with parents who want more middle school athletics at their schools. It would be nice to have sports at all junior highs like they used to, back when there were a lot more kids and a lot more participation. Having one set of coaches works out well, unless your kid is not good enough to make it on a starting team and won’t play when he or she is in seventh or eighth grade.”
He said that Northeast in particular has long been facing inadequate funding for sports. “The school district bases a lot of their funding on student participation fees. Only 25 to 30 percent of kids can pay a fee at Edison. Also, at Edison you don’t get 700 people to show up at games [like at South Minneapolis high schools such as Southwest, South, and Washburn]. You get 50 to 70. You have to make enough money in attendance to pay for cost of putting on a game. If you don’t, it comes out of your general fund. For us, that can be $10,000 to $15,000 a year. We as Northeast parents are asking the district to be more equitable. I don’t know that they can do that and support every seventh and eighth grade team.”
The Edison Activity Council is a 501-c-3 non-profit organization. Its purpose, Oliver said, is to give Edison what other Minneapolis schools have. “We also promote theater, band, and French Club. We advocate the district to help take care of our kids as much as others, because we found out that they don’t. There is no swimming, gymnastics, downhill skiing or mountain biking at Edison.
“I know that we don’t have a school district so that we can have sports teams, but my son playing soccer kept him in school. We know that kids who participate in sports are more likely to graduate.”
Oliver said that in April, the school board committed to devoting more resources to Edison next year. “We asked what percent of our budget that would be, but they haven’t told us. Now they say there will be a 10% decrease for the whole district across the board.”
Edison athletic director Amy Cardarelle said the district will sponsor Varsity and JV teams. If enough kids sign up for a third team, Edison will fund it. All students, if they want to participate, can try out for a team, she added, although there is no guarantee they will make it.
Wicker (in a later Northeaster interview) cited another change for 2017-2018: the district will be adding a stipend-funded athletic coordinator position to each middle school. Also, all the middle schools will have their own girls’ and boys’ basketball teams next year. (Marcy’s teams, for example, played at Edison in 2016-2017).
Tucker said that many things are looking up for student athletes in the district. “Each of our seven main high schools has a newly furnished weight room, and we will be providing athlete training care. A lot of positive things have taken place in the last four years.”
Communication director Plewacki said that the district has committed money to field and facility improvements.
Arneson’s view, and event set
School board member Jenny Arneson, who represents District One (which includes Northeast and Southeast), wrote in an e-mail that her understanding is that the district will provide soccer and basketball at middle schools in the 2017-18 school year.
“This is a similar level to the two middle school after-school offerings we had this year, of soccer and track. Additionally, middle school students in seventh and eighth grades can create lower level [additional] teams through the high school, or create teams through the parks,” she wrote.
“The Edison Activity Council has been working diligently with our athletic leadership to resolve some inequitable funding practices that result in larger schools with more resources raising money and Edison not keeping pace. The district will continue to ensure Varsity and JV teams exist, and it’s my expectation that Edison could use these resources to continue to fund lower level teams to serve Edison students and 7th and 8th graders at NE Middle and Marcy.”
Arneson blamed the deficit on state and federal funding not keeping up with inflation. “We will continue to rely on our parks to complement our offerings. In a time of reduced public investment, our schools and parks will have to collaborate to ensure we are allocating our resources in a way that meets the demand.
“About 100 Marcy and NE Middle school students played on a lower level team through Edison this year, some at their middle school and some at Edison. They, along with all the Edison athletes, will be recognized at the first annual Blue Gold Athletic Banquet on June 8 in the Edison gym. There are nearly 400 athletes in total being invited to this event.”
The school board meets June 13 at the Educational Service Center, 1250 West Broadway Ave. in North Minneapolis, to finalize its budget for the coming school year. The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m.; public comment time is 5:30-6:15 p.m. Arneson can be reached at 612-382-0734.