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Posted: Friday July 11, 2008 11:05AM; Updated: Friday July 11, 2008 1:27PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >

School sports programs fight to stay alive in struggling economy

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Alameda (Calif.) squares off against Encinal during last season's Island Bowl. In March, students from both schools walked out of class to protest budget cuts that would have eliminated funding for sports.
Alameda (Calif.) squares off against Encinal during last season's Island Bowl. In March, students from both schools walked out of class to protest budget cuts that would have eliminated funding for sports.
Ed Jay
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Pay to play

As money grows tighter for taxpayers across the nation, levies such as Measure H aren't going to save sports funding everywhere. To make matters worse, some districts have placed athletics on the sacrificial altar so many times in order to ram through a tax increase or to squeeze out additional funding, voters have begun to consider it an empty threat.

School sports turned into political football earlier this year in Manchester, N.H. In April, athletic director Dave Gosselin warned that the district might not be able to find funding for athletics in the $140 million budget proposed by Mayor Frank Guinta. The mayor argued that if the district used the money more efficiently, it could afford to fund sports. In an interview with the Union-Leader, one of Guinta's predecessors, a veteran of an earlier budget crunch, agreed.

"This is an exercise designed to whip the parents into a frenzy," former mayor Raymond Wiezorek told the paper. "It wouldn't occur to them to ever take a good look to see if there's another way to do things that might cost a little less. ... [Government] never makes the adjustments that a private business has to make to survive. In government, how do I survive? I send people a larger tax bill. I don't ever have to worry about changing anything."

In May, Manchester's school board approved a budget that would continue to fund athletics. But without additional tax dollars, what is a cash-strapped district to do? Bob Kanaby, the director of the National Federation of High School Associations, said schools in nearly 40 states charge students to play sports.

As the economy has faltered, those user fees have risen in many districts. Last September, The Boston Globe reported that 27 schools in metro Boston charged students to play sports. Fees ranged from $75 per sport at North Middlesex Regional in Townsend, Mass., to $250 a sport with a $1,000 per family cap at Stoneham High, where a new garbage collection fee -- on top of the user fees -- saved sports in 2007. In Brainerd, Minn., parents and coaches formed a foundation to fund Brainerd High's sports programs after the district eliminated funding. In spite of their efforts, parents will have to fork over $380 a child in activity fees this school year. In Lakeville, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, a failed tax levy forced a mid-year activity-fee hike from $90 to $230. Lakeville North High athletic director Byron Olson said the increase didn't affect team sports this past spring, but it did curb participation in individual sports such as track and tennis.

Olson worries that districts are pricing low-income families out of sports. Unlike other schools that charge user fees, Lakeville North has yet to raise enough money to create a fund that would allow poor students to have their fees waived. Olson fears the disparity will make an already obvious class system even worse. He also worries that some students may never try new sports because their parents aren't willing to spend the money.

"We're going to lose some students because they can't afford it," Olson said. "It goes against everything that we stand for."

User fees also introduce other issues. For instance, parents grow more frustrated when their child sits the bench. Didn't they pay so she could play? Also, coaches and school athletic directors turn into glorified accounts receivable clerks. They must track down every check and manage mountains of extra paperwork.

For these reasons, schools in much of the country have fought user fees, either by raising money to cover shortfalls or by convincing local governments to provide enough to keep them running. But when the money evaporates, some schools have no choice. The coaches at Mount Vernon in New York never wanted their athletes to have to pay. Now, they must consider the possibility. "It's on the table," Cimmino said.

Potential solutions

The surest way to keep school sports afloat is to raise money that can directly fund athletic programs. Anyone who has ever eaten at a crab boil or had their car washed by a high school softball team knows most high school coaches are master fundraisers. But can they raise six- and seven-figure sums if they must forge ahead without public funding?

Wright, the Mount Vernon football coach, hopes he can. He has secured a $25,000 donation from filmmaker Jeff Cooney, a former Mount Vernon resident who previously had spent that amount every year to provide academic coaches for the football team through the National Football Foundation's Play it Smart program. The academic coaches have volunteered to work for free this year so Cooney could repurpose his donation.

Still, Wright knows he needs more than a few big donors. He'll take anything he can get to help Mount Vernon's teams play this year. He suggests that if 5,000 people gave up one night at the theater, the school could fund the entire sports program into the winter. Raising money for this year is the first challenge. Keeping the programs funded is another story entirely.

In Texas, where education funding has not risen with the level of inflation for three years, Plano athletic director Gerald Brence runs what might be as close to a recession-proof program as possible. Brence hopes that in a few years, his department can take in enough revenue in ticket sales to fund itself. He said that if home football games for his district's three high schools can draw between 8,000 and 10,000 fans, the district should come close to breaking even. That way, he said, the district could continue to provide the necessities -- fields, equipment, transportation, officials -- while leaving any extras to school booster clubs. "If they want to run through a giant, inflatable helmet," Brence said, "that's something the booster club would have to provide."

Of course, not all communities are as affluent or sports-crazy as Plano. In other areas, districts may have to raise private funds for endowments or find more creative ways to get public funding. One potential solution is a tax-credit program. At Red Rock High in Sedona, Ariz., parents must pay a participation fee ($400 per family maximum) for their children to play sports. But those who pay the fee are eligible to receive a credit on their state income tax return. So they pay the same tax bill they normally would, but those dollars get earmarked for a program those taxpayers consider vital to their community.

At Mount Vernon, coaches and civic leaders will examine every option. The coaches already have offered to work for free, and they'll spend most of their free time fundraising to save the athletic program. Though the odds are against them, Cimmino, Wright and the other Mount Vernon coaches believe they can beat the buzzer and play this season.

"I promise," Cimmino said, "I'll have a big smile on my face in August watching coach Ric yell at his players."

For information about Mount Vernon's Save Our Sports program, call (914) 665-2351.

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