The Pender Public Schools board of education welcomed the community to a town hall meeting Monday night in the Heese Event Center in Pender to present information, hear viewpoints and answer questions about the possibility of joining forces with Emerson-Hubbard in junior high and high school athletics.
Empty seats weren’t easy to come by.
PPS superintendent Dr. Jason Dolliver presented a 30-minute historical summary of the two districts collaborations in both academics and athletics over the past seven years, as well as analysis of current enrollments and participation projections in a variety of sports for both districts.
Emerson-Hubbard superintendent Lindsey Burback, who was flanked by members of the E-H board throughout the night, also presented information and a clear message on behalf of her district.
“Pender was our students’ top choice in the survey that was sent out. It was our parents’ top choice in a survey that was distributed to them, and it was our staff’s top choice,” Burback said.
The relationship between the two districts has a history that has been tested over the years — most notably when a Nov. 1 deadline came and went in 2017 without assistance coming from E-H’s direction when Pender indicated it would struggle to field its own football program in 2018.
The Nov. 1 deadline wasn’t met for that co-op, and it was about two weeks later that E-H approached Pender with its request to consider a co-op in all sports going forward.
Further straining relations between the districts was the revelation that E-H would also talk to three other school districts and eventually — although temporarily — chose Allen.
Dolliver addressed the two issues in his presentation, noting that it’s something that remains part of the equation for some people in the Pender district as a difficult decision stands before them. He also said it should not be the deciding factor, and the board wants to study all pros and cons to a long-term agreement.
“I will tell you my immediate reaction was that this is two weeks after the football deadline. We needed to have this conversation before now. I’m not going to hide that, it is what it is. The last couple of months have been a lot of mixed messages, but I totally understand the process that Emerson-Hubbard has gone through,” Dolliver said. “What that does is it sends red flags. It’s not a deal breaker, but it’s a warning sign. It’s something to consider.”
The schools currently have cooperative agreements in high school track, baseball and junior high football. In past years, the schools have co-oped in all junior high sports at various times, speech, and have shared curriculum resources in biology, art and agriculture education.
Pender’s students have been surveyed on two occasions, including in December 2017. At that time, 116 students in grades 7-11 were asked if the benefits outweighed the challenges for doing a co-op in sports. More students than not thought it didn’t. A total of 20.7 percent said “probably not,” 31.9 percent said “no,” 26.7 percent were neutral and 17.2 percent said “probably yes.” The remaining sliver were in favor of a full co-op at that time.
A more recent survey was given to students on March 3. In that one, 78 percent of students who participate in athletics in grades 7-11 said not to do a co-op in all sports. That rose to 83 percent when only students who will be in high school next year were surveyed.
Pender activities director Andy Welsh noted one major difference between the surveys from December to March was that there had been time for the issue to be discussed at home with parents. It was also noted that students did provide written feedback with “rational reasons when asked to explain their responses.”
Dolliver said that discussions with Pender’s coaches did not find any that were “dug in” on not cooperating. Consensus was that the time frame for doing an all-sports co-op for the upcoming school year in 2018-19 was moving too fast.
Enrollment projections accompanying this story show that class sizes in Pender tend to be more stable and larger than at E-H at the present time. In grades K-12, PPS has 182 girls to E-H’s 105. On the boys side, PPS outnumbers E-H 172 to 125. Pender has its largest enrollment since 2003, though most of the larger classes are in the elementary grades. Emerson-Hubbard’s fifth grade class is larger than Pender’s, 26 to 22. It appears based on the best available figures that a co-op would place sports teams in basketball, for example, in the top quarter of Class C-2 — unlikely to be in Class C-1 and certainly not in D-1.
The forum was opened to the public to make statements and ask questions for more than two hours after the presentations. A blend of Pender district patrons and members of the Emerson-Hubbard community took turns with microphones.
PPS board president Matt Peters said that the board wanted honesty and for all sorts of perspectives, promising to forgo customary board policy on public comments if that didn’t become chaotic. What followed was a largely respectful exchange of thoughts and ideas, including from E-H district patrons.
Laura Lampe of Emerson told the audience that their board got it wrong the first time when it selected another district to co-op with.
“I want to be sure your community and your board realize the outrage that came with that decision. I won’t go into details, but if Emerson-Hubbard was in an uproar in December about the fact that a complete co-op was becoming a reality, Emerson-Hubbard was in complete pandemonium when it found out it might be Allen.”
Several speakers noted that there seemed to be more of a participation problem than an enrollment issue at both schools, but the fact remained that in two high school sports — volleyball and girls basketball — there’s an impossibility of competing on their own at E-H next year. They will have fewer than four players on each team.
Bob Beckman of Pender, a former math teacher in the Pender district, a 15-year school board member in Pender and an area farmer, said that what he sees is a neighbor in need.
“I’ve watched as this whole community has grown, whether it’s the community center or the hospital, or the clinic — whatever we have going for us. But I can also lay witness to the fact that this town is very generous and very kind in the things that they do to help other people,” Beckman said.
“I don’t care if it’s for one child or 50, we’ve got a community over here that is asking us for our help. To me, it’s an absolute no-brainer.”
Shane Schuster, who has lived in the Pender district for four years, agreed it’s a tough decision because of the needs factors E-H has in girls sports especially.
But he noted several areas that give him pause in moving forward, including a lack of independence in making decisions for local students and extra time away from home and studies traveling for his two children.
“Especially when we don’t have to,” Schuster said.
“I don’t want anyone to take away that if it’s a ‘no’ vote that isn’t because we don’t want people here. We are an open community and we would like as many people here as possible.”
A vote of some kind could happen as early as the Pender board’s next regular meeting on April 9. It will be an action item at that time, though board president Matt Peters stressed that might not mean a vote will happen.
In the meantime, a survey of district patrons is underway between now and April 5. The survey can be taken electronically via a smartphone utilizing a “QR Code” accompanying this article in the Pender Times or Dakota County Star. It can also be found in this week’s edition of The Pender Times for those who’d prefer to complete it by hand. Or, simply visit this link https://goo.gl.forms/PyO6KF9alAuUnThW2
“It’s a passionate subject. In the position we’re in to make this decision, it’s important to do our due diligence, take our time and make sure we’re making a decision we can live with,” PPS board member Matt Heineman said.
Burback informed the Pender board that there are some negotiable items that E-H would consider, including preservation of the Pendragon mascot, which is the only of its kind known in the nation. Pursuing a so-called “buffet style” next year in which Pender would help with specific needs as opposed to a full co-op right away would be acceptable.
Peters said it’s probably the best approach to decide, based on survey data and all other factors, whether it’s a “no” or a “maybe” and go from there.