School sports programs fight to stay alive in struggling economy
Forget the wins, which hit 300 in February. Forget the four New York state public school titles in eight years. Of all the statistics Mount Vernon (N.Y.) boys' basketball coach Bob Cimmino keeps, he cherishes one the most. He's 82-for-85. In his time as the Knights' varsity coach, all but three of his players have gone on to college. Cimmino, a social studies teacher who counts Chicago Bulls star Ben Gordon as a program alum, considers sports a critical part of any high school's curriculum.
The Mount Vernon school board disagrees. Two weeks ago, the board eliminated funding for high school sports after a school budget tax levy failed for a second time, forcing the district to draft a $187.4 million austerity budget that also required the elimination of 115 jobs -- 51 of them teaching positions. The decision left Cimmino, Knights football coach Ric Wright and the rest of Mount Vernon's coaches scrambling to raise the $950,000 required to fund the athletic program for the 2008-09 school year. If they can't raise at least $300,000 by August, the coaches said, Mount Vernon's fields and courts could be empty for a long time. Cimmino, a Mount Vernon native, doesn't want to imagine that possibility. "It'll be a devastating thing," he said.
More than 3,000 miles away in Alameda, Calif., coaches and athletes at Alameda and Encinal high schools received the same dire news in March. California's budget crunch had forced the Alameda school district to cut sports, music programs and advanced placement classes to the bone. But students at both high schools -- aware that the school district receives funding based on attendance -- demonstrated their might by walking out of class en masse. The attention garnered by the walkout probably saved the sports program; last month, a $120 parcel tax passed by the slimmest of margins and saved funding for sports.
The situations in Mount Vernon and Alameda aren't isolated. Throughout the country, inflation, rising gas prices and a stagnant economy have forced school districts to rethink how they fund sports. Some have instituted or raised "user fees" that charge parents for their children to play. Some, such as Mount Vernon, have ordered schools to seek private funding. Meanwhile, others have started down a slippery slope of small cuts that can only lead to more drastic ones. If recent events are any indication, school-sponsored sports may soon be only a memory.
"The way everything is going, it could be a completely different landscape in a few years," said Jay Stewart, the athletic director at Florida's St. Lucie County. "High school athletics are in danger."
Last month, Stewart banned his football coaches from traveling more than 75 miles to an away game. He also said that after this year's contracts expire, schools must slice their regular-season football schedules to nine games. Other sports already had cut their seasons, but the idea of football cutting its schedule would have seemed heretical a few years ago. Stewart worries that soon, schools in Florida will have to seriously consider cutting junior varsity sports. Without that feeder system, Stewart said, varsity sports could find themselves on the chopping block as well.
Florida's troubles aren't difficult to trace. High gas prices have forced would-be tourists to stay home. Without those tourists, the state doesn't collect as much sales-tax revenue (Florida has no state income tax). With less revenue, the state has less available to give to school districts. Despite that, districts still must adhere to a state constitution amendment, passed by voters in 2003, that limits class size. With most of the money earmarked for the classroom, districts have struggled to pay for helmets, for volleyball nets or for gas to fill buses for away game trips. "It's the perfect storm," Stewart said. "It's the class-size amendment. It's the reduction in funding. It's the bad economy. All that hit at the same time."