Superintendent Lance Bagstad notified the Park Rapids School Board Monday about a request from the Menahga Public School to consider pairing the two schools' football programs.
Board chair Sherry Safratowich emphasized, "This is just a discussion to see what the interest is from the Park Rapids School Board" as to whether the school should continue the conversation with Menahga School representatives.
Bagstad said personnel from Menahga approached the district a few weeks ago to discuss the feasibility of pairing the two programs. High School Principal Jeff Johnson, Activities Director Jeremy Nordick and members of the school's athletic activities committee met with their Menahga counterparts about it.
"The decision at that time was to bring it to the board to see if there is any interest in moving forward," said Bagstad.
Nordick: Benefits of pairing
Asked how the pairing would affect Park Rapids' standing in Section 8, Nordick said, "Right now, we're at the very bottom, enrollment-wise, of Class AAA. We're at 329, the last time the numbers were ran. Moving forward for the next two years, in fact, we did appeal to try to move to AA. We were very close; it just didn't happen."
"With Menahga," he continued, "It would put us at 452, which puts us right in the middle of the pack of Class AAA. So, we wouldn't even be close to moving up a class."
For comparison, he cited statistics about neighboring AAA football programs, including 518 participants in Thief River Falls, 410 in Perham, 535 in Pequot Lakes, 775 in Detroit Lakes, 555 in Fergus Falls and 337 in Roseau.
Nordick said a merger with Menahga football would add 58 students in grades 5-12, an average of eight kids per grade, while Park Rapids had 99 participants last year in grades 7-12.
Asked how the proposed pairing would benefit the school, Nordick replied, "We're at about three or four teams with fifth and sixth grade; I could add another team or two. Seventh and eighth grade - adding eight kids to each of those grades."
He continued, "It's been a while since we've been able to put a ninth-grade-only team out there. I think that would give us an option, there, to have a full ninth-grade team and a full JV team, and then a substantial amount on varsity."
Nordick added that "Menahga is hurting," as the Sebeka School Board moves toward withdrawing from United North Central football.
Gauldin: Get community input
"I am totally against pairing at this point, and I have been," said board member Gary Gauldin. "That can change with what this community wants."
He added that "the only way I'm going to change the vote for any pairing" is "if the community says, 'Yeah, we want a pairing.'"
Board member Dennis Dodge said, "I think it's going to be beneficial to the kids, whether it be ours or theirs...I'm all for it, myself. We already pair with Walker and Nevis in different sports because we need the numbers. They don't have the numbers. Rather than seeing (Menahga's football program) hurting or dissolve, I think we should help it out."
"I see no harm in going forward with discussions," board member Clayton Hoyt said.
"Pursue it," said board member Jay Pike, and Carlson agreed.
Asked for his assent, Gauldin said, "Not until we hear from the community."
Board member Stephanie Carlson said the board needs more specifics before bringing the question before the public. Gauldin replied that even conceptually, the community should have a chance to weigh in.
Asked for suggestions about how to get community input, Gauldin said, "the same way we're going to do it with ICS" - referring to the consulting group the district hired to gauge public interest in updating school facilities.
He added, "The same way Laporte is doing it, to use another example" - referring to a hearing last month at the Laporte School about a possible sports co-op with Walker-Hackensack-Akeley.
"I'm going to ask that we vote on this," Gauldin said.
"No, we are not voting tonight. This is just a discussion," Safratowich said. "I'm hearing that we're generally willing to move forward, and we'll definitely look into and get some community input."
Nordick said the Minnesota State High School League has been asking about the situation, with uncertainty about the future of United North Central already creating scheduling concerns.
"I respect that," said Safratowich, "but because they're in a bind does not put us on a fast track. We need to do our groundwork and due diligence in order to make this work for us, and ultimately for them, if that's how we're going to do it."