— The Milton School District is looking to wrist shots and body checks as its latest tools to bolster student enrollment and district revenue.

The school board on Tuesday approved a proposal by the district’s athletic department to join the Rock County Fury girls hockey cooperative.

The agreement means the district will pay the full cost—$1,160 per participant—to be part of the Badgerland Conference. The league is run as a state-sanctioned athletic consortium, Milton High School Athletic Director Brian Hammil told the board Monday.

The district will enter into a two-year agreement that lets female students play organized league hockey with others in the Janesville, Beloit, Clinton and Monroe school districts. This marks the first time Milton has paid to join an extra-curricular athletic consortium, and it’s the first time the district has offered organized league hockey, Hammil said.

Hammil said the district’s involvement would appease parents seeking opportunities for their daughters to play sanctioned hockey and those willing to move their students into districts offering it.

Hammil said he’s talked to parents of nine district students who said they’d enroll their daughters somewhere else in the next two years if they can’t play hockey at Milton. He said that if those students opt out of the district, it would result in the loss of $45,000 in state aid.

The full cost to join the cooperative is about $10,400 for two years, according to estimates from the Beloit School District, which runs and hosts the co-op. After that, costs would be renegotiated between the districts involved.

Hammil said the cost is cheaper than the potential alternative—losing students.

“It’s just more expensive to lose kids than to play hockey, offer it and justify an additional cost,” he said.

The board’s move underscores the fierce competition between local school districts to lure and retain students in an era when state rules allow parents public school choice within a set geographic area.

Milton parent Wade Hallett has a daughter in eighth grade that plans to play hockey next year. He told the board that parents who are considering moving their children from one district to another want schools that have a broad spectrum of programs—including athletic activities.

“For us hockey families, this is sort of a long deal,” he said. “These kids get started at 4 or 6 years old.”

“It’s a long-term, trenched-in program,” Hallett added. “Hockey, as a program, could be a draw.”

Milton is among several semi-rural districts scrambling to find ways to retain students within their own boundaries.

According to district officials, enrollments in Milton have been flat district-wide in the last four years, but they’ve held stable. That’s mostly attributable to the district’s 4-year-old kindergarten program, which started in 2011.

Milton High School Principal Jeremy Bilhorn said enrollment at the high school has been “flat” since 2008, with a “little bit of negative downward trend.”

Programs such as girls hockey could stem those losses, district officials say. For Milton, a co-op is the best way because interest is still growing and the relatively small number of students interested would fit well on a multi-school team, Hammil said.

Boys’ hockey would be a different story, he said, because there would be more available participants locally. A two-team cooperative would work better, and that’s something the district is looking at in the future, he said.

For now, girls hockey players will pay a $50 athletic activity fee. Sign-up for participation will take place this spring.

Hammil pointed out that some districts in the cooperative such as Janesville don’t pay the full cost of membership. He said in Janesville, students pay about $700 to be in the co-op. That cost includes an athletic fee, and it covers equipment, he said.

“I don’t want to run them (students) away with costs,” Hammil said “We’re not punishing you for playing hockey.”

Hammil said Milton might regain some students it lost to Janesville in past years simply because Janesville offered hockey and Milton didn’t.

The cooperative’s cost includes transportation to games and ice time. Beloit, Janesville and Monroe each have ice arenas.

Parents would be responsible for transporting students to practices, some of which run at 7 or 7:30 p.m. on weeknights, according to parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting.

School board member Wilson Leong said he thought the district paying for the cooperative was a good idea.

“From a fiscal standpoint, it’s fair,” he said. “The return on investment is substantiated.”

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