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Status quo for district sports; charter school participation considered

BEMIDJI -- After meeting a half-dozen times to discuss the Bemidji School District's existing extracurricular activities policy in regard to charter school students, the decision was to maintain the status quo.

"The committee has met several times to consider various aspects related to charter school participation in (district) activities," said Troy Hendricks, activities director at Bemidji High School, as he read a prepared statement during Monday's regular School Board meeting. "Initial discussion focused on both logistical challenges, as well as capacity changes associated with allowing charter participation."

That included the potential of, under Minnesota State High School League guidelines, having to move up into higher, more competitive divisions for athletics if charter schools students took part in MSHSL-governed athletics. For if that happened, the now-cooperative sport would have to tally the total number of students from multiple school systems, thus boosting Bemidji's usual enrollment figures.

"The committee determined that it would not be feasible to allow charter school participation in activities governed by the MSHSL," Hendricks said.

Truly, though, the focus of the conversation was on whether to allow students at the Schoolcraft Learning Community to participate in the district's middle school athletics.

There, the recommendation again was to maintain the current policy disallowing such a scenario.

Brandon Bjerknes, activities director at Bemidji Middle School, said the conversations were very positive and constructive, and perhaps if he was having a difficult time filling out complete teams instead of finding room for all interested student-athletes to compete (the district has a no-cut policy through the ninth grade), the recommendation may have been much different.

He said it was a benefit to the greater community that the meetings occurred as the district learned from Schoolcraft what it was seeking and why, and, likewise, Schoolcraft learned more about the reasons behind the district's longstanding position.

"As a result of these meetings, opportunities for greater cooperation between (the school district) and charter schools and community youth sports organizations were identified.," Bjerknes said.

For example, if Schoolcraft were to establish its own cross-country running or ski team, it would be welcome to partner with the district to share a bus and save transportation costs to area competitions, and that new team would be invited to take part in Bemidji School District home events.

Another line of conversation suggested that it may be feasible to allow charter school participation in individual sports, such as cross-country, but the complexities surrounding such a decision proved too difficult.

"I have approximately 220 students involved in our middle-school track program (so) to add a few more Schoolcraft (students) that could happen, but, with the complexity of it all, and we didn't want a wishy-washy (policy) ... we felt it would be better to have a consistent policy," Bjerknes said.

Participating in the meetings were Schoolcraft School Board members and parents as well as staff and parents from the Bemidji School District.

Also heard were representatives from various community youth and athletics associations.

Many of those -- Junior Olympics volleyball for example -- are open to all area students, regardless of school.

"It seems to be the way that our activities are going in our community. The outside sources, the clubs, they are involving just as many kids in competitive activities as our middle school programs and we wanted to make sure we didn't allow something for someone and not allow it for everybody," Hendricks said. "In having conversations with the community, the opposition was overwhelming, for those people in our community, those people working in our district, they did not see this as something we should get involved in."

John Pugleasa, chairman of the Bemidji School Board, served on the committee and said he considered himself fortunate to have been able to take part.

"I was encouraged by the discussion as it relates to the opportunities for cooperation," he said.