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Great Falls Public Schools considers adding high school baseball, but challenges remain

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Posted at 5:14 PM, Jun 25, 2024

GREAT FALLS — The push for high school baseball in Great Falls took another step at Monday night’s school board meeting.

GFPS athletic director Mike Henneberg gave an informational report to the board of trustees in front of a packed house at the district offices. He laid out four factors that need to be considered based on a study from a committee consisting of district staff and administrators:

  • Betterment of GFPS students and the sport of baseball in Great Falls.
  • Interest and support.
  • Financial viability and sustainability.
  • Feasibility.

Henneberg said adding baseball would potentially allow more kids to play the sport. Currently the only options to play baseball in high school is through the American Legion program. And the costs can be prohibitive.
Having a shorter season would allow student-athletes to work or train for other sports during the summer months.

There’s also the potential to help the Legion program since the spring season would be shorter and make summer baseball more attractive to those who participated in the high school season.

Henneberg said there are concerns about athlete health, especially pitchers. Current high school rules regarding pitch counts are much more liberal than what Legion allows.

A survey distributed to GFPS athletes and parents showed adequate interest among current and future students and families. The Great Falls Voyagers minor league team, Little League programs and Legion programs have expressed their support.

Financial viability is the biggest hangup. Startup costs are estimated at between $40,000 and $50,000 for uniforms and equipment. Annual operational costs are estimated to be between $40,000 and $50,000 per year per school for an additional $90,000 to $100,000 in the budget to fund programs at Great Falls High and Great Falls CMR.

Henneberg had the GFPS business operations manager give an overview of the budget for the board and attendees and it painted a bleak picture. Extracurricular activities currently makes up just 2.15% of the district’s budget or about $1.6 million annually — mostly tied up in coaching salaries and travel expenses.

Projected revenues are falling behind expenses, creating a growing deficit. If public school funding is not adjusted in the legislature, GFPS will have to ask taxpayers for a levy or make reductions to programs and personnel.

From 2008 to 2021, GFPS has made $10.4 million in cuts with a projected shortfall of $2.66 million as bond funds and COVID relief money runs out.

Both Missoula and Billings plan to use private funds to kickstart their programs and Great Falls will likely have to follow a similar model. Several people in attendance said there would be more than enough support in the community to fund the programs.

RELATED: Missoula County Public Schools votes yes to add high school baseball in 2025

“I think we’re going to have some problems with levies and bonds in the future,” said local youth coach Zac Griffin. “And the private sector is more than willing to help.”

Kali Nelson-Tuckerman, a baseball parent, said the baseball community in Great Falls would be happy to step up.

“I just raised $275,000 in six months for a playground at Lincoln Elementary School,” she said. “I will get out there, I will go knocking on doors if I have to. We are a family, we want this, we will make it happen and we will do whatever we can to help you through that.”

Greg Schoby, the president of the Riverside Little League, said there are nearly 1,000 athletes participating in youth leagues across Great Falls which shows the interest in baseball. He also started a petition on Change.org that has gathered over 500 signatures as of Tuesday.

“I think now the plan is to start knocking on doors and getting pledges,” he said. “Showing the board at the next meeting in August that we have pledges, donations and community support to make sure we are able to fund it.”

There are potential Title IX concerns around private funding. Billings and Missoula predicated their decisions on three years of private funding before reverting to using district money.

Baseball would eventually have to expand their schedule from 14 games to 22 games to be equitable with softball. Playing 22 baseball games across nine weeks is a concern.

RELATED: Billings Public Schools trustees approve addition of baseball for spring of 2025

Field availability, transportation, umpire availability, and volatile spring weather are other issues the district would have to work through to make baseball a reality. But everyone in attendance agreed that moving forward will require flexible, creative solutions.

“I think you got to be flexible. I think you got to look at it through a different lens,” Henneberg said. “But I think you have to be respectful of everybody's lens. And I think being flexible and open to exploring some things that maybe don't work out or do. I think that's the key.”

Superintendent Tom Moore said the GFPS cabinet has recommended putting high school baseball under consideration for the 2025-26 fiscal budget year. The budget committee will meet for the first time in July.