Their season was just beginning after already being delayed once when word came to stop practices. Westonka’s hockey and ski teams were standing on thin ice with a big question mark stamped in the snow: would they get a season at all this year?
That question has now, of course, been answered when Gov. Tim Walz gave leave to youth athletic teams to resume practices Jan. 4 with games and meets starting up Jan. 14.
It seems youth sports will play out, but how have Westonka’s programs fared? Pretty well actually. And as those involved attest, it’s in large part due to the strength of community support and the symbiotic relationship shared by booster clubs and the school district that has long sustained these programs.
Toward the end of 2019, Westonka announced that Boys Lacrosse would join its roster of Varsity and JV teams as a “phase one,” or “unfunded,” program. The district would cover its transportation costs and head coach, but that was it. Still, the boys would be wearing White Hawk red, not the green of Holy Family.
It was a big win for those who had pushed for the sport over the few years it took to save up about a third of the estimated $35,000 it takes to field a Varsity team.
The route taken by those at the helm of the youth lacrosse association is a common one and mutually beneficial, said Jeff Peterson, activities director at Westonka: kids get more opportunities in their extracurriculars, which makes the district more competitive, but the schools don’t have to bear the full cost burden of running another program.
It’s “hard to say ‘no’” when it’s being offered at no cost to the district, especially in a competitive high school environment. “If we don’t offer programs that kids and families are interested in, they choose another high school experience,” said Peterson, who said that if budget cuts do ever have to be made or if a program has to be cut entirely, that “you don’t quite know the unintended consequences of those decisions in action maybe for a while.”
Westonka has a phased route to full district funding for its extracurriculars, but that four-phase route can be a lengthy process, requiring at least six years’ success as a self-funded program before a team can enter phase one, and even once it does it could be stalled for years. The district’s Nordic Ski team, a phase one team, has a 20-year history and still hasn’t moved into phase two.
Even for fully-funded programs like football, soccer and hockey, the district foots the bill only for those costs considered necessary to the game: a head coach—but not an assistant coach or skill-specific coaches; a soccer ball—but just one for games, not more for practices; an umpire—but no batting cages or pitching mound. These just extras aren’t in the budget.
Cue the boosters.
Colin Mather, who leads the boosters for Westonka Soccer, a fully-funded program, said the role of the boosters is to enhance the experience of the kids who participate through community recognition, end of year banquets and, coming back to the financing side of it, additional coaching staff, practices on artificial turf and extra equipment that help make a team more competitive.
But for Nordic, which receives only a coaching stipend and money for basic transportation, enhancing the season comes down to just making the season viable.
Fundraising and individual registration fees have to cover everything from race conference and entry fees to wax and other supplies, uniforms, equipment maintenance repairs and training trip expenses, said coach Sue Harrington, who, like Mather, singled out the additional coaching staff as crucial for this “technique-based endurance sport” and said that the money raised in the community to cover these extras makes the boosters “critical to the functioning and success of the team.”
Especially when “the initial start-up is pretty steep,” added Randee McGown, Nordic’s booster lead. The annual Gear West ski swap and community fundraising allow the boosters to buy starter equipment for the team and have helped Nordic to average 30 skiers each season.
The role of boosters has been much the same for co-curriculars. Band is a fully-funded program, but it gets its “bells and whistles” from the boosters, said Gretchen Chilson, band director at Mound Westonka High School.
Booster money allows the band department to buy instruments so that a baritone player doesn’t have to lug their brass back and forth and so a family that can’t afford the $40 a month rent on a clarinet—or a $4,000 tuba—can still have their student take part, she said.
Chilson said the department, which is also aided by registration fees, was able to take a step back from fundraising last year, a decision she said was partly guided by an understanding that families heavily impacted by the parndemic might not be in a financial position to give to the program. More concerning, she said, is the longer-term effect that canceled concerts and the distance learning of an instrument may have on the program, especially for the middle schoolers learning their first notes: will these new musicians enjoy Band enough to continue with it?
Over all, though, booster leaders have said they’re optimistic that one year won’t set them back too much. Small adjustments, like pausing uniform replacement for a year or savings made on canceled invitational fees, are helping, as are the online fundraisers that have partially supplanted the omelet breakfasts and door-to-door mulch sales.