by NATHANIEL NELSON
For the past seven years, Cotter High School (CHS) has been paying almost $20,000 in fees to Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) for its students to participate in an athletic cooperative with Winona Senior High School (WSHS). At the last WAPS Board meeting, several Cotter parents pled for the district to remove the fees as CHS, which had been covering the bulk of the cost for years, recently announced that it would be passing the cost onto parents, with some individual activity fees rising to as much as $1,200 per student for one sport. WAPS has been dividing the total cost of the sport, including equipment, coaching staff, and “overhead” per participant and then billing Cotter for the cost per student. For some sports, those costs add up; for instance, gymnastics costs more than $11,000 annually, and according to CHS officials, the average bill over the past few years for the sport was nearly $1,200 per student.
“Is it a School Board policy or finance office practice? Was the School Board ever aware of the changes and the costs?” said Stacey Mounce Arnold, a CHS parent and former WAPS Board member. “It’s about opportunities for kids –– all kids. We all need to embrace the decisions that families choose. Should we penalize people because we don’t like the schools we chose? No.”
“We want our student athletes to be provided the same opportunities that we all pay taxes to support,” added Lisa Ebertowski, a fellow Cotter parent.
According to Sister Judith Schaefer, president of Cotter Schools, the private school system was not always subject to the numerous fees in the co-operative.
“When I first came here in 2012, we had not paid any fee for over 20 years. From 1980 to 2012 or so, we hadn’t paid anything. In the fall of 2012, we received a bill for the fees of the previous year. That was the first time we had ever seen them, and it was not on our budget,” Sister Schaefer said.
According to a document provided in the WAPS Board agenda for Thursday, “Cotter has been charged a fee per the athletic cooperative agreement between our organizations for many years. During that time, Cotter students needed to pay the same participation fee as WAPS students with Cotter schools paying the cooperative costs as a part of their athletic program.”
Parents had been paying the same activity fee as WAPS students, which is $160 per sport. However, under the new fee structure, Cotter students are suddenly on the hook for a much larger portion of the cost –– on top of what they were already paying.
“Basically, they take what they say is the cost of each sport –– ice time, gym time, busses, equipment –– and divide it but the number of people on the team, and then they charge us that per-student cost,” Sister Schaefer explained.
Not all sports are affected by this agreement. Cotter High School has more than 25 different activities, including staples like baseball, basketball, football and cross country. However, some sports are combined through the cooperative with WAPS.
“We just don’t have swimming, we don’t have wrestling, and we don’t have hockey or gymnastics,” Sister Schaefer said. Nordic ski and golf are also only offered at WAPS.
In total, only 15 or 20 students apply for the co-op sports each year, a far cry from the total of 180 students who enroll in those sports every year. However, each students is billed according to what sport they play, with skiers owing $260 in additional fees all the way up to $1,190 per student in gymnastics.
Those costs were unsustainable for Cotter, Sister Schaefer explained. In 2014, the Cotter Board of Directors petitioned WSHS to reduce or eliminate the fee, arguing that adding a solitary student to a sport does not increase the cost or require additional coaching and that the school’s families are still taxpayers. Over subsequent years, Sister Schaefer continued to try and find a way to make it work.
“I approached the district and said we were very willing to pay something,” she explained. The disagreement arose from the amount, Sister Schaefer said, and that adding one person to a team could cost as much as $1,200. “I said we’d be willing to pay ‘X’ amount per student, and they rejected that. There wasn’t another option,” she added.
According to WAPS, the revenue from the co-op fees are recorded as revenue for the athletic program and sent back to cover the costs for the district, and other co-op schools in the areas are charged the same.
“Whether or not the cooperative school chooses to pass a portion of their costs on to their families is up to those schools. Homeschool students who participate in WAPS’ activities are charged using the same fee structure,” the statement reads.
However, for some families at Cotter, that fee can mean the difference between playing in a sport or not, and some have said they are feeling like they are used by the district for profit while their children go on to help WSHS’ teams make it to state competitions.
“It takes great schools to have a great community. You can’t have one without the other,” Ebertowski said. “We are trusting you to be fair and provide opportunities for all our families and students.”
At Thursday’s meeting, the WAPS Board will discuss the cooperative athletic agreement with Cotter, and the fees included, though it is unlikely to make any new decisions as the agenda item is only information.