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Published January 23 2012

Norman County East now waits for Ulen-Hitterdal's decision to merge programs

TWIN VALLEY, Minn. – Faced with dwindling enrollment that threatens to wipe out some sports by attrition, the Norman County East School District will look to a partnership with neighboring Ulen-Hitterdal to bolster its ranks.

The school board voted 4-2 Monday night to approve a merger of the two districts’ athletic and extracurricular programs in grades 7 through 12 starting this fall.

The measure must still pass muster in UIen-Hitterdal, which mulled the issue at its own meeting Monday but decided to table it for further discussion amid widespread disagreement. The district will revisit the issue at a public meeting Feb. 1.

A similar arrangement was explored last spring, and rejected by Ulen-Hitterdal. Late last year, officials revisited the idea.

Supporters say the pairing agreement will broaden opportunities for both districts.

Steve Radniecki, the Norman County East athletic director, said current enrollment – about 21 students per grade level – makes it difficult or impossible to fill out some teams.

Norman County East and Ulen-Hitterdal already partner in softball and baseball, an arrangement Radniecki said has been a success.

But several parents and community members – especially those from Gary, about eight miles north of Twin Valley – said the partnership would present travel issues in a consolidated district that would stretch about 30 miles from north to south.

Under the proposed agreement, sports and activities would be split between Norman County East and Ulen-Hitterdal facilities, depending on the activity. The districts would provide transportation between schools, and split other costs based on participation.

Radniecki said he expected consolidation to save the district about $20,000 per year.

Meanwhile, in Ulen, Monday’s meeting produced impassioned comments both for and against the proposal.

Dustin Flaten, a teacher and football coach, said the merger would help students play at the right level.

“I know there’s kids that aren’t ready to step on the field as a ninth- and 10th-grader,” he said.

But others said the move would limit opportunities for playing time. And some said they felt like the timeline was rushed.

“I understood that nine months ago we said no to Twin Valley,” said Steven Holm, a parent. “All of a sudden, we need to do this right now, tonight?”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Marino Eccher at (701) 241-5502