Contentious co-op: Moose Lake, Willow River have lengthy relationship, but disagreements are festering
Ever since the high schools in Moose Lake and Willow River joined athletic forces in 1984, the relationship has ebbed and flowed. Tranquility has given way to tension, and vice versa.
Disagreements are inevitable, but one thing both sides can agree on is this: The cooperative is immersed in a rough patch.
"We do get along and we've gotten along for 30-some years, but we're having a reality check here," Moose Lake superintendent Bob Indihar said recently.
While not new, the issues have festered.
Moose Lake school board member Jamie Jungers has questioned the disparity in participation between the two schools. He contends Moose Lake supplies 75 percent of the athletes. Based strictly on enrollment, the configuration should be closer to 60-40. Jungers argues that in sports beset by even wider gaps, students in his district are penalized by competing in a higher Minnesota State High School League classification because both schools' enrollments are taken into account.
Moose Lake's 2017-18 enrollment, as determined by the MSHSL for classification purposes, is 174; Willow River's is 109.
Other issues include differing financial obligations and Moose Lake's inquiry last winter into hosting all sports; the long-existing arrangement stipulates each school hosts certain sports.
Jungers doesn't mince words.
"I have never disguised the fact that I would prefer to see the co-op come to an end," he said in a statement to the News Tribune.
However, Jungers says he merely is doing his job as an elected official — promoting transparency.
"As a director of the Moose Lake school board, it is my responsibility to ask questions and obtain accurate information regarding all aspects of school activities," Jungers said.
He and fellow board member Kris Lyons have been outspoken on the topic.
Last year, Willow River pressed Moose Lake for an unwavering commitment to the co-op. Indihar says the answer was "yes," but not indefinitely.
"They wanted a time; they wanted 10 years or something like that," he said. "And my board did not commit to the number of years."
Moose Lake-Willow River football coach Dave Louzek, who's also the athletic director at Willow River, disputes that claim.
"There was actually no commitment from the Moose Lake school board at all," said Louzek, who has compiled a 170-39 record while leading the Rebels to 11 state tournaments since taking over in 1999. "That was really disappointing. They basically said, 'We'll take it year by year.' "
Competition and class
The breakdown for athletic participation in 2016-17, via data provided by Indihar, shows 69 percent of the athletes are from Moose Lake. Here are the numbers by sport, for grades 7-12:
• Softball: 13 Moose Lake, 17 Willow River
• Baseball: 30, 14
• Track and field: 60, 16
• Golf: 14, 2
• Boys basketball: 40, 17
• Girls basketball: 21, 15
• Cross country: 31, 3
• Volleyball: 43, 13
• Football: 58, 44
• Totals: 310, 141
Going back further, the distribution was 73-27 percent in 2015-16; 75-25 in 2014-15; 80-20 in 2013-14; and 79-21 in 2012-13.
Looking at each sport individually, and where Moose Lake — by itself — would be classified, reveals the following impact.
Softball would move from Class AA to Class A, but fielding a team could be problematic. Baseball, golf, basketball and football similarly would drop down. The co-op already competes in Class A in track and field, cross country and volleyball.
It stands to reason that success is easier to attain in smaller classifications, though that's hardly an across-the-board truth. Consider Carlton volleyball, Mountain Iron-Buhl girls basketball and Ely baseball, to name a few.
"It is disheartening to see our athletes work so hard and believe they could have had success playing at a different class level," Jungers said. "With having to count the entire (Willow River) High School population and their average contribution of 25 percent or less, it simply feels unfair — to me — for some of the competing athletes."
That argument doesn't jibe with MSHSL philosophy, Louzek said. Foundationally, the league stresses education-based athletics in which the overriding focus is participation, not competitiveness.
"For two school board members to be worried about section championships and state competition as priority No. 1, and then not even paying attention to state high school league emphasis, is really frustrating," Louzek said.
New facilities, will host
Perhaps looking ahead to its opening of a $34.7 million community school this fall, Moose Lake athletic liaison representatives last December inquired into hosting all sports. Willow River scoffed.
"We responded that we are supportive of the Rebel co-op," Bruce Bohaty of the Willow River school board said. "We want to be a good partner.
"Would Moose Lake like to have everything there, all the sports by themselves? Absolutely," Bohaty added. "Would we like to have it all by ourselves? Maybe in an ideal world. But in reality, neither one of us are big. Together? Boy, there is a benefit to being together."
Louzek said Moose Lake and Willow River are supposed to be equal partners, and having all sports located in one community isn't equal.
The bond equipped Moose Lake with a new track, baseball field and, of course, a spacious new gymnasium (replete with a moose head mascot, and not a Rebel, at center court). Missing is a softball field, scrapped because of budget constraints, and a game-ready football venue.
"Those are two big-ticket items that we would have to look at," Indihar said. "At this point in time, I don't see us building those. So I don't know, unless we went out for another bond, that (hosting) those are a reality."
One point of contention is the condition of the Willow River football field's peripheral features. While a picturesque setting for high school football, there are deficiencies. Jungers specifically noted a lack of "adequate (sometimes dangerous) parking options, poor concessions facility — including no hot or indoor running water. And no indoor toilets."
Officials at Willow River say they have funds earmarked for facility upgrades. But short of a staunch commitment from Moose Lake, they are not comfortable spending that money. If Moose Lake builds its own field, or if the co-op disbands and Willow River is forced to pair up with another school on the gridiron — East Central, for example, which has a newer field and thus would likely host — the need for updated lighting and concessions would be negated.
That money, they say, would then be better spent elsewhere.
"If they're going to build their own football field, there are other things that a school can spend money on," Louzek said.
He questioned why Moose Lake would want to take on the cost of building a new field for football or softball, another sport hosted by Willow River.
"... To go to the Moose Lake community and ask for more money to finish off athletic fields, including a new game football field that isn't needed, and putting in a game softball field that isn't needed, is financially irresponsible," Louzek said.
Contractually, Moose Lake and Willow River split the first half of the co-op's net costs 50-50. The second half is divided based on the percentage of each district's enrollment, according to Indihar.
Jungers says that amounted to a share of 55.4 percent for Moose Lake in 2016-17. He maintains there is more to the discrepancy, though, than simple net costs. For example, Jungers alluded to Moose Lake spending $750,000 on its new track for a sport administered by Willow River, which "is not contributing a dime." Similarly, he says Willow River isn't supplying money for the new baseball field in Moose Lake.
"Admittedly, (Moose Lake) administers this sport, but again, Moose Lake has contributed toward football, which is a (Willow River-administered) sport," Jungers said. "My point in sharing all of that is to show that costs are not 50-50."
At a meeting of both boards last April, Willow River board chair Dave Prachar said his district didn't ask Moose Lake to build the track.
"You asked us to put money aside for maintenance and resurfacing the track in 15 years," Prachar said, according to the Moose Lake Star-Gazette. "It is your project."
Despite the friction, don't expect a return to the Moose Lake Lakers and Willow River Wildcats. Nobody interviewed for this story envisions a breakup.
And, most say, the co-op shouldn't crumble. It lessens the financial burden for both districts; it provides stability; and — the biggie — it creates more, and better, opportunities for students.
Ian Coil, a senior captain on the football team, doesn't think anything should change, not after more than 30 productive years of co-existence. Coil attends school in Moose Lake, but says, "I think I have a few more friends from Willow River than I have from Moose Lake.
"We love each other and want to be around each other. So we really don't want it to end."
Jungers was asked about popular opinion, if there's a pervasive feeling in Moose Lake that the co-op has outlived its usefulness. He says he hears both sides, but because the topic hasn't been formally introduced, "It would be unfair for me to hazard a guess."
Kevin Szczyrbak, a MLWR assistant football coach who lives in Moose Lake, believes he knows the answer.
"I guarantee the co-op's not ending if the people have anything to say about it," Szczyrbak said. "We've been partners with Willow River for 30-some years. Why are we even talking about this?"
One potential reason, Indihar believes, is something as simple as school pride.
"When you think of Moose Lake, you automatically think of Willow River because of our sports," he said. "That's another argument that I've heard, that we don't quite have the school pride of other schools because we have these other entities with us.
"The thing that I'm hearing is, what's so bad about having pride in Moose Lake? It's not always just Moose Lake-Willow River. We are a separate school."
Louzek admits the discord has become a drain.
"What's more frustrating is there's no push from the student-athletes to separate, there's no push from the coaches or athletic directors closer to the sports teams to separate, no push from the administrators to separate and no push from the communities to separate," Louzek said.