After 15 years without representation on the board of directors of the South Dakota High School Activities Association, Sioux Falls finally has a voice. And a fresh perspective.
Brian Maher, first-year superintendent of the Sioux Falls School District, is running unopposed for the new District I Representative board position adopted earlier this year by member schools. His victory is assured and will be formally announced next week.
Only Sioux Falls and Rapid City fit the enrollment criteria for District I designation, and the rotation calls for a superintendent to be named. Rapid City superintendent Tim Mitchell has announced that he will resign at the end of this school year, so Maher is the man.
Still, he was reluctant to climb aboard for a five-year term after being contacted by SDHSAA executive director Wayne Carney over the summer.
“I told Wayne I would decline the opportunity simply because I was new to my position and I felt the (superintendent) job would require my full attention,” says Maher, who came to Sioux Falls from Kearney, Neb., where he served as superintendent for eight years.
That wasn’t enough to dissuade Carney, who knows better than most how long this Sioux Falls drought has lasted. Carney served on the board from 1995-2000 during his time as Washington High School athletic director, and no one from the state’s largest district has been elected since.
The SDHSAA director urged Maher to talk to the Sioux Falls school board before removing himself as a candidate, and at least two of the board members told him: “You need to do this.”
“It was clear to me that they wanted Sioux Falls to have a seat at the table, and this was the opportunity,” says Maher, who agreed to fill the post.
He will make his board debut Nov. 4 in Pierre, joining what is now a nine-member group that rules on nearly every important issue facing high school activities in South Dakota, including state tournament venues, expenditure of funds, rule changes, eligibility guidelines and school classifications.
Maher arrives with plenty of experience, having served on the Nebraska School Activities Association board of directors for two separate terms, including a stint as board chairman.
Asked about the “anti-Sioux Falls” perception that has affected board elections and led to animosity on the subject of state tournament sites, he said he plans to lean on his Nebraska experience.
That state had a similar board makeup that made it difficult for larger districts such as Omaha and Lincoln to get represented. Finally, changes were made to allow Omaha Public Schools administrator Jerry Bartee to serve – and all eyes were upon him.
“Everybody looked to see how he would act,” says Maher of Bartee, his friend and mentor. “Do you act bigger than you should just because you have the most kids in your district? But Jerry came on board with great humility and tremendous passion for all of the kids in Nebraska, not just Omaha, and he communicated well with his fellow board members. That’s the blueprint I’d like to follow.”
There will likely be disagreements along the way, with state tournament site selection a potentially delicate issue. The opening of the 12,000-seat Denny Sanford Premier Center in Sioux Falls has led to calls for the state’s largest city to serve as primary host for basketball championships – following the “road to the big city” format common in most states.
Sioux Falls will host a combined boy-girl Class AA tournament in March, with Rapid City set to host the same event the following year. The first Class A combined basketball tourney is scheduled for the Premier Center in 2019, and Class B could be under discussion soon.
Maher noted that Nebraska holds its basketball championship games at the 15,000-seat Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, but he’s too prudent to take a firm stand on South Dakota’s situation just yet.
“My general philosophy is that we should do everything we can to make every state tournament a championship-quality event,” says Maher. “But I have a lot to learn about before I jump into that discussion.”
Spearfish principal and SDHSAA board member Steve Morford calls the addition of a Sioux Falls representative a “great move” and is excited to work with Maher, whom he knows from their previous stints as Nebraska administrators.
“He knows big schools and small schools and comes with a lot of perspective,” says Morford. “I think a lot of that anti-Sioux Falls stuff gets overblown, and it definitely won’t be a problem for Brian.”
Maher’s background in athletics makes him especially suited to the role of activities board trailblazer.
His daughters were multisport standouts in Kearney who both ran track at the University of Nebraska. His son, Brett, was a kicker and punter for the Huskers in 2011-12 who played most recently in the Canadian Football League with the Ottawa Redblacks.
The Sioux Falls superintendent has been a frequent presence this fall at football, volleyball and soccer games and plans to continue to show up and support students as they pursue not just sports but all activities.
“That’s important for me,” says Maher. “I can’t go watch a student take a math test, but I can go watch students sing, or throw a football, or perform in a play. It’s that ability to see students in action that drew me into this profession.”
Argus Leader Media city columnist Stu Whitney can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @stuwhitney