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Bigfork School Board votes to partially fund their unfunded sports

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | September 17, 2022 11:20 AM

After a large showing of support from parents, students and coaches, the Bigfork School Board voted Sept. 14 to partially finance the district’s previously unfunded sports programs.

Newly supported programs include boys and girls soccer, boys and girls golf, boys and girls cross country, the swim team and the wrestling team. Trustee Dan Ewell initially petitioned his colleagues for full funding of all programs. He said the participating students work very hard, but lack well-deserved support.

“Do you guys know we had close to a championship soccer team and we don't even have a bench for our team to sit on the soccer field? … That's a disgrace,” Elwell said.

During public comment, many parents and coaches spoke about their constant fundraising efforts, which they said eventually becomes exhausting and ineffective. Assistant soccer coach Vicki Bagley said the students are dedicated to fundraising, but many local businesses are being solicited by all of the sports at once, making it difficult for them to donate.

“I have spent countless hours — I can't even tell you how many hours — searching for raffle items and donors and printing raffle tickets and organizing kids,” Bagley said. “The kids work hard to go out there and sell these things … and so many businesses want to donate, but they are just literally tapped out.”

All board members spoke highly of the programs, their participants and the work it takes to run them. Still, every trustee besides Elwell was against voting to fully fund these sports.

Trustee Julie Kreiman, saying she was a “fan of compromise,” made an alternative proposal to partially fund the athletic programs, paying only for the Montana High School Association fees and coaches' pay. The idea enjoyed support from Trustee Christina Relyea and Trustee Carol Field — who was recently appointed to take over the rest of Jessica Martinz’s term.

Board Chair Paul Sandry gave some historical context to the discussion about why these programs got cut in the first place. He said in 2010 the school saw record low enrollment, forcing the board to cut costs. At the time, there was a large outpouring of support for the school to retain these sports. The board promised to keep them but said they would be unable to fund them.

To go back on that promise would be unfair to taxpayers who didn’t even know the issue was on the table, Sandry argued.

“Historically, we've had crowds bigger than this in the boardroom, when people were begging to get these sports on and they knew what the deal was,” Sandry said. “They knew that these sports would not be funded, and that you can come to us in the future but we wouldn't fund them.”

He said the extra money the district currently enjoys is left over from Covid-19 relief funds, which they are no longer receiving, and might make it appear as if they have a bigger budget than in a typical year. As the district continues to grow, Sandry said it would be more beneficial to save money and use it for facility needs, like building another parking lot.

Co Chair Zack Anderson agreed with Sandry, as did Trustee Ben Woods. Anderson said he has a son on the wrestling team and has put a lot of time in the program. He said, given the previous promise from the board, funding these sports would be unfair to taxpayers.

As a compromise, he proposed putting the measure on next spring’s ballot and using a tax levy to secure the funding. With a show of support from taxpayers, Anderson said he would definitely vote for full funding.

“We put it out to the public on the next ballot as a voting option for them to say, ‘Should these sports be funded?’ And if so, we'll get another $44,000 a year. You get two things from that: You get the money and, second of all, you get the voter’s approval,” Anderson said.

$44,000 a year is currently the max amount the school board can get from a tax levy. The board most recently passed a tax levy in order to raise teacher pay in the district, and in the past, a levy was used to cover new facilities at the high school and elementary/middle school.

Relyea said she was against a tax levy and ultimately threw her support behind the partial funding proposal.

“As conditions change, our needs change,” she said. “I mean, was it a contract that was signed with the taxpayers in 2010, that you wouldn't fund the sports? I don't understand, because we changed so many things. We didn't have a School Resource Officer, now we have an SRO … I know the difficult position that you were in, but I don't see sticking there if things have changed and aren’t that same way.”

Elwell made the proposal to partially fund the programs, including the state high school association fees and coaches’ pay. Originally proposed at a set $32,000 a year, they decided to leave it open ended because coaches’ pay is adjusted annually. The measure passed four to three, with Elwell, Kreiman, Relyea and Field voting in favor and Sandry, Woods and Anderson voting against.

The next Bigfork School Board meeting is scheduled for Oct. 12 at 5 p.m. in the high school library.