By Tim Leeds
After successfully defending its title in the Montana Academic Challenge last winter, Havre High has lost its sponsor. The company wants to give other area schools a chance to compete this year.
But a proposal might move forward to allow any Montana high school participate in the future.
Rich Stuker, chair of the Chinook School Board, said he plans to present a resolution to the Montana High School Association in January to make the Academic Challenge an MHSA-sanctioned event.
"It's academics, and that's what we in the school system are supposed to be supporting," he said.
The Academic Challenge, sponsored by Montana cooperatives and produced by KPAX-TV in Missoula, gives high schools the chance to compete in district tournaments and a state tournament.
The number of competitors is limited at each tournament, and the cooperatives sponsoring the event have to choose between the teams from the different schools applying to compete. District tournaments are held in Great Falls, Billings and Glendive, with eight or 16 teams competing in each district.
Havre was sponsored for the event, which began in 1994, for the first time two years ago. John Magyar, general manager of the Triangle Telephone Cooperative Association and Hill County Electric, said his companies have a policy of sponsoring a team a second time if it wins the championship, to defend its championship, but then sponsoring a different school the following year.
"We have so many schools in our service area," Magyar said, "how do we get some fairness?"
Carol Pleninger, one of the coaches of the Havre team, said Havre is optimistic that it might be able to get back into the competition in the next few years.
Stuker's proposal could allow any school interested in participating to compete during a regular season. Stuker said he imagines a six- to eight-week regular season, followed by a championship season similar to basketball or volleyball. The championship teams could have a playoff season or be decided by win-loss records, he said.
It might be difficult to get a proposal in front of MHSA's Jan. 16 meeting, Stuker said, because he didn't find out about the deadline to submit resolutions until it was past. But, he said, he hopes to still raise the issue. He added that he is trying to raise enough grass-roots support to help get the issue addressed this year.
If not, Stuker said, he will try again next year. He said he plans to present a resolution to the Montana School Board Association at its meeting in August supporting MHSA sponsorship of the challenge, to put some pressure on MHSA to look at the issue.
Stuker said getting MHSA approval might be difficult, but he will try to convince athletic and activities directors in the association that the academic side is as important as athletics.
MHSA executive director Jim Haugen acknowledged the association has voted down previous proposals to sponsor academic-challenge activities. He said MHSA considered a proposal about 10 years ago, before Academic Challenge was proposed, to sponsor an academic activity but decided against it because of the expense.
"In that era we hated to see things added because of school costs," he said.
Ian Marquand, Academic Challenge project coordinator, said he thinks the expense was why MHSA voted in 1993 against sanctioning the challenge, which was being called the Academic Olympics at the time.
Marquand said once MHSA declined to sanction the event, KPAX moved forward to produce the challenge on its own, starting in 1994 in Glendive with one sponsor, Mid-Rivers Telephone Cooperative.
Stuker said he doesn't think there would be much expense in sanctioning the event. Most schools already have coaches or advisors practicing with students before they even know if they can participate, he added.
The competition begins in early January each year, but the cooperatives don't receive the list of schools applying to participate until November, after schools have already started practicing, Stuker said. The cost of transporting four- or five-student teams to competitions should not be too high either, he said.
Stuker said he hopes having the cooperatives continue to sponsor the district and state tournaments, which are broadcast on KPAX and its sister CBS/Montana Television Network affiliates in the state, can be negotiated.
Marquand said he doesn't necessarily oppose MHSA sanctioning the event, but that he would want to see the proposals first.
"We're pretty proud of what we have and wouldn't want to see that diluted," he said.
Since its beginnings in 1994, the Academic Challenge has grown to include 10 sponsors and three districts. Marquand said he would like to see it expand into the western part of the state as well, but hasn't found up-front sponsorship to do so yet. He added that academic competition isn't as well-known in western Montana. But he said he would like to see the opportunity spread to more schools.
"We think this is something that people all over the state would be interested in," he said.
Magyar listed the local schools his companies are sponsoring for the preliminary Great Falls district tournaments in January. Triangle Telephone is sponsoring Chinook and Chester, Central Montana Communications is sponsoring Hobson and Stanford, and Hill County Electric is sponsoring Blue Sky and J-I schools. Triangle is also sponsoring Big Timber for the Billings district tournament and Central Montana Communications is sponsoring Judith Gap at the Billings tournament.