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Rothsay flier irks Barnesville School District

A Rothsay School District promotional brochure has raised eyebrows in neighboring Barnesville and put a strain on a 17-year-old sports cooperative between the two districts.

The new brochure, which lists bus service from Barnesville as one of Rothsay's perks, took Barnesville Superintendent Scott Loeslie aback.

"We had an issue with them communicating they'd send a bus to Barnesville," Loeslie said. "In essence, Rothsay was recruiting our kids."

Rothsay Superintendent Mary Donohue Stetz said the brochure, along with newspaper, radio and outdoor ads, is part of a legitimate promotional campaign that helped the district arrest declining enrollment in recent years.

Experts say an increasing number of Minnesota school districts are countering shrinking enrollments and per-pupil state aid by marketing themselves more proactively outside their boundaries. Some educators say these efforts merely provide information to parents, who get to choose where to enroll their children. Others frown upon what they deem aggressive poaching of students.

The Rothsay brochure touts the district's small class sizes, free preschool and all-day kindergarten, college prep classes selection, and free bus services from Fergus Falls, Elizabeth, Erhard and Barnesville.

Loeslie said districts across the state, including Barnesville, send buses into neighboring communities. But advertising bus service to a partnering district might cross the line.

"That's the way the business of schools has evolved with open enrollment - everything is fair game," Loeslie said. "But if you're in a cooperative agreement with someone, maybe you don't target their kids."

Rothsay and Barnesville offer football, track and golf jointly. Barnesville hosts most practices and games, and Rothsay foots the bill for its students. The current agreement expires on Dec. 1; both districts are debating whether to renew it.

Loeslie confronted a group from Rothsay about the brochure at a recent meeting to discuss the co-op agreement. Donohue Stetz stressed her district never mailed the brochure to Barnesville parents. She apologized for the mention of Barnesville and vowed future brochures would not refer to the district if the partnership stands.

Several years ago, the city of Rothsay and its school district kicked off a bid to market its small-school edge: using a billboard outside Moorhead on Interstate 94, a booth at the Fargodome's Home & Garden Show and local radio and newspaper advertisements. Donohue Stetz said the efforts seem to have paid off: Last school year, the 200-student district attracted 45 children from other communities.

"You have to get the word out about what you have to offer," Donohue Stetz said. "If you do nothing, then nobody knows much about you."

Charlie Kyte, executive director of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators, said for years after the state adopted open enrollment in the 1980s, districts followed unspoken rules: They wouldn't directly target each other or send buses farther than a quarter-mile into each other's territories.

"But with declining enrollments across the state, that has gone out the window," Kyte said. "It's hard to be cooperative when you're competing."

The Mounds View and Minnetonka school districts in the Twin Cities area recently gained notice for their aggressive marketing through advertising or direct mailings outside their boundaries. Closer to home, Norman County West displayed a billboard in Moorhead six years ago announcing the district was "Worth the Trip!"

Bob Noyd of the Minnesota School Public Relations Association said with no state rules on district marketing, there's little consensus on what's fair game.

The Moorhead School District doesn't market or offer bus service in neighboring communities. "I'm not into that type of competitiveness," said Superintendent Lynn Kovash.

Barnesville's Athletic Director Todd Henrickson said renewing the sports co-op agreement is up to the school board, and he hopes the brochure won't affect its decision: "It was an adult decision, and I don't think the kids should pay for that."