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Rec vote seeks to fix errors

Staff writer

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

That may well be the principle guiding a Nov. 8 ballot proposal to create a recreation commission for the Marion-Florence school district.

Critics have questioned whether the proposal is little more than an attempt to levy a new tax to pay for the same services with no corresponding cut in taxes that used to pay for them.

Questioners fear it could be a backhanded way to tax everyone to recover costs of operating Marion facilities donated by city.

Nothing could be further from the truth, according to Lee Leiker, who as interim superintendent is spearheading the project.

“We won’t even necessarily do a tax,” he said. “Statutes authorize that ability but certainly don’t mandate it. This one mill that’s possible certainly has no bearing on why we’re doing this at all.”

Costs of maintaining facilities and of paying a rec director will be borne by the school district, not the commission, he said.

Commission revenue will come from donations and registration fees for rec events.

“The real focus is that the way the city transferred this over to the school district — it wasn’t authorized to do that,” he said.

The city and the schools agreed in 2001 to operate a joint rec program. The city, which owned most facilities at the time, took the lead and offered mainly summer baseball.

A year ago, Marion wanted out, but officials apparently were unaware of a law Leiker cites that forbids cities to withdraw from rec agreements without voter approval.

Leiker was retired and serving as a city council member in far-away Colby when the city gave its ballparks to the schools and pulled out of the agreement.

He learned of the action when he returned to Marion to fill in for a year as interim holder of his former position as superintendent. He immediately set to work to remedy the problem.

“By statute, a joint rec commission cannot be transferred to a school district by a city,” Leiker said. “In order to have a rec program run by the school district, it has to be voter-approved.”

Putting the question before voters Nov. 8 will clean up legal loose ends left by the city’s abandonment of rec.

It has nothing to do with the city’s separate donation of facilities last year, he emphasized.

If voters don’t approve the referendum issue Nov. 8, “rec is going to cease to exist; it will either be dropped completely or it could go back to being a joint rec program, run by the city, and I don’t know that the city would be willing to do that,” he said.

That’s the lemon the community was dealt by the city’s actions regarding rec. Familiar activities like summer swimming and baseball might not happen.

The lemonade is that rec can be transformed into something the impacts broader segments of the community and enhances overall community life — a vision Leiker appears committed to achieving.

“We want to expand a rec program for all ages throughout all the district — whether it be youth events or adult events,” he said.

He envisions the rec commission increasing use of such things like as the schools’ performing arts center and activities motor coach, more comfortable than typical school buses.

“These are the very things that have been discussed,” he said. “Another example is for a group to go to the Maxwell Wildlife Preserve to see the buffalo. All of these are experiences that get people, young and old, involved. Recreation is far more than just athletics.”

Interscholastic sports would continue unaffected, and youth rec athletics still would be included. But Leiker’s goal is to add such things as art, drama, music, day trips, and other enjoyable activities that, for young and old, would have entertainment as well as possibly educational value to them.

He seemed excited about prospects for including programs designed to help older residents keep their minds and hands active as a way to forestall declining memory, cognitive, and motor skills.

Key will be who is appointed to serve on the rec commission, which will have autonomy in picking what activities will be offered.

The rec director will weigh in on these matters as well, but the school board will not, Leiker said.

He said he would stress the need for the commission, most of its members initially appointed by the board, to be well-rounded and representative of many different interests rather than being dominated by people interested in just one aspect of recreation.

“It’s opportunities,” he said, “and we’re going to provide enough opportunities that people can pick and choose things they might be interested in.

“Certainly not everything we’re going to offer is going to be something that everybody is interested in. But that’s the idea of a good rec program. It needs to be broad enough that it offers different things so something will end up enticing everybody at some point.”

Other rec programs in the county have help bring in such things as martial arts and dance studios as well as arts and cuisine classes, day trips, game nights, and myriad other opportunities.

“Exactly!” Leiker said. “It’s a great opportunity. The schools have the facilities to do these. Done properly through a rec commission and having a rec director, I certainly see the opportunity for things to really expand and thrive for the community, certainly beyond little kids playing football.

“We want to provide opportunities to make this community thrive. But we can’t do it if we can’t get it approved.”

Unlike in some larger cities, title to ballparks, pools, and performance centers and the costs of operating them will remain with the schools, he said.

The schools already have solicited applications for a rec director and plan to start interviews immediately if the ballot question is approved.

Applications to become commission members also would be sought at that time, he said.

Leiker hopes to have the program up and running by right after the first of the year.

Last modified Oct. 26, 2022

 

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