Combination agreements hot topic at Dist. #1 board meeting

Should small schools like Rocky Mountain High School allow their students to participate in extracurricular activities at neighboring schools if the school doesn’t offer the activity? The answer to this question is not as simple as it might appear.

The common practice called “combination agreements” was discussed at length at the Big Horn County District No. One school board meeting held on Tuesday, March 11 at the district’s administrative headquarters in Cowley.

Athletic Director Rod Winland opened the discussion with an explanation of how combination agreements are structured. He said there are two types of agreements: “in-district” and “out-of-district.”

An example of an in-district agreement is the arrangement Rocky Mountain High School has with Burlington High School for its students to compete on the RMHS wrestling and cross-country teams. Examples of out-of-district agreements would be similar agreements for RMHS students to participate on the soccer or swimming teams in Powell or for students to participate on the speech and debate or indoor track teams in Lovell.

“What’s pressing about these combination school agreements is that we are in the unique situation where we have a 3A school to the west and next year we will have a 3A school to the east,” explained Winland. “Those two schools (Powell and Lovell) will be able to offer programs that we don’t, which means they are going to draw upon our kids to support their programs and that will affect the programs we offer at our school.”

Though the issue was not up for a vote at the meeting, it did generate a fairly lengthy discussion among board members.

Board member Brett Crosby quickly went on record saying he was opposed to the elimination of combination agreements.

“We exist for the kids, the kids don’t exist for us,” said Crosby. “I strongly disagree with the elimination of combination agreements because I believe in a free-market concept. I think if the kids want to play soccer in Powell, they should be allowed to do what they want. They should be allowed to do what makes them happy.”

Board member Paul Rasmussen agreed with Crosby.

“We need to allow our students to excel in what they excel in,” said Rasmussen.

Board member Joan Zier expressed her concern that students would not have the opportunity to participate in activities not offered at the school.

“It would be devastating to lose an activity like speech and debate, where we don’t have enough students to make up a team at our school,” she said.

Winland noted that, when the district participates in combination agreements, it requires time on the part of staff to verify grades and organize itineraries. He said there is also expense involved, but he didn’t go into detail about the amount of that expense. He said the school loses control of the student’s schedule and sometimes it causes that student to miss classroom time as a result of their participation. He said it also interferes with school spirit.

“As athletic director, I see kids in the hallways wearing clothing bearing Powell’s school colors,” said Winland. “That’s not feeding our school spirit. That doesn’t promote the Grizz.”

Supt. Shon Hocker noted that the district has had these discussions in the past and there are pros and cons to each side of the argument. He said he’s already had “discussions” with one soccer mom who has expressed concern that a change in policy would affect her children’s enjoyment of a sport like soccer, forcing them to participate in a sport like track that they may not enjoy as well.

Some board members expressed their concern that taking away programs that students feel passionately about would cause students to transfer to another school.

Winland said the issue is pressing to him because the decision to enter or not enter combination agreements with neighboring schools will be coming up fast. He said he hopes the school board will agree to revisit the issue before the next school year. He said once the school opens up participation to students in a sport, all students must be allowed to participate in that sport.

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In another pressing matter, the district’s business manager, Richard Parker, brought to the board’s attention how the current rules regarding Obamacare will affect district employees’ eligibility for benefits.

He said under Obamacare, any employee working more than 29 hours is eligible for health insurance. He said the rules are strict in that all hours count, even when the task is different. An example he gave is when coaches are also part-time teachers. All of the hours would most likely add up to more than 29 hours, even though currently the coaches are paid a set fee, irrespective to the number of hours worked. Another example he cited was substitute teachers, who may at times work more than 29 hours a week but at other times work less than 29 hours.

He said he is already tracking the number of hours worked in an effort to plan for future costs that may be associated with certain employees that the school does not currently shoulder.

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The board also held a brief discussion of how new legislation will affect the school including future requirements for suicide prevention and cameras that will now be required on buses.

by Patti Carpenter

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