School Athletic Programs VS. Budget Cuts

LinkedIn by: Katie Jones

“It sounds like the introduction to a bad joke: A musician, a poet and an athlete get up at a budget meeting to plead for the School Board to keep funding their programs,” said Barbara O’Brien, Buffalo News staff reporter.

According to the National Retail Federation, the school supply lists for students is increasingly growing and that’s just one sign that the school systems are steadily cutting their budgets. Sports programs are also taking a hard hit during this time. The main focus of schools is to educate students, am I right? Well educating students is so much more than having the proper textbooks and instructors. First the students need to want (and make it) to school in order to partake in lessons, and sports and extra-curriculars are largely responsible for providing the incentive for students to do so. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, student athletes are “four times as more likely to attend college and are 50 percent less absent in school than their peers who do not play a sport.” While it could be seen in a negative light that students only want to attend school to partake in sports after school, I believe that as long as the motivation exists, it’s not a bad thing.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that “at least 31 states provided less state funding per student in the 2014 school year (that is, the school year ending in 2014) than in the 2008 school year, before the recession took hold.  In at least 15 states, the cuts exceeded 10 percent.” Many school boards have made cuts in previous years to eliminate extra spending but now they are getting to the point where they still have to reduce their budgets and eliminating sports programs is one of the options. Some of the possibilities that Fairfax County Public Schools came up with would be to increase class sizes, reduce the number of assistant principals, psychologists and social workers, eliminate after-school programs in middle schools, stop the funding of activities such as band, drama, yearbook, debate and student councils, or preschool, and lastly eliminate high school sports and staff or to start charging fees.  Based on this list one may predict that the options would be reduced down to eliminating either the extra-curriculars or starting to charge a fee for sports because it would affect less of the population. Increasing class sizes and eliminating social worker, assistant principal, and psychologist positions, as well as eliminating pre-kindergarten would however affect the whole student body. When asked about the effect of eliminating an art versus a sports program, Dave Dickson from the National Federation of State High School Associations noted: “the community often feels that a ‘successful’ football or basketball program is the identity of the community and cutting those programs is like cutting the heart out of the community itself…” and then continues on with “aside from the ‘Band and Choral Boosters,’ the outcry from the community is usually much less than if a sports program gets cut.”

New York’s Frontier Central School Board’s interim superintendent Paul Hashem justifies the elimination of such programs with “it’s also one of the further things away from the mission of the school – reading, writing and arithmetic.” However, cutting sports programs is more than education and involvement, it can also impact the health of the student athletes. To knock out athletic exercise at a time when childhood obesity is an absolute epidemic could be just as damaging for the health of the nation. In the Open Access Journal of Sports Medicine, Donna L. Merkel states  “organized sports have been shown to assist in breaking the vicious cycle of inactivity and unhealthy lifestyle by improving caloric expenditure, increasing time spent away from entertainment media, and minimizing unnecessary snacking… and both male and female athletes were more likely to eat fruit and vegetables, and less likely to engage in smoking and illicit drug-taking.”

Everyone is willing to do what they need to keep these programs active including White Pine High School baseball coach and teacher Quinn Ewell who said, “there’s a $90,000 cut to sports, including baseball and dance. I would be willing to cover the stipends. Right now we’re sending a bus down half full, but softball and baseball could go together.” Other school systems have thought of doing this but they have extended their proposal to possibly restricting schedules to playing schools in the immediate surrounding area, having parents pick up the tab for expenses like athletic physicals and fees, as well as eliminating athletic trainers from schools.

Some schools have their sport programs set up where players have to pay to play however this can become pricey in instances with large budget cuts/ extensive programs. This could also be a determining factor as to whether some athletes are able to participate based on the financial obligation. A recent study by the Detroit News determined that more than 88,000 high school student-athletes in southeastern Michigan will collectively fork over $10 million in fees to play sports this academic year. Royal Oak High in suburban Detroit, for example, charges hockey players $750 per season. This fee seems incredibly high for participation in a high school athletic program, so perhaps more could be done to ease the financial burden for players to make it more achievable for all budgets. Players could be responsible for asking for local sponsors, conducting fund-raisers, or working out deals for equipment, travel, and area partnerships.

“Unfortunately, there is a price tag on education,” Paul Johnson, with the White Pine County School District finance office said. “It’s not incompetence, it’s economics. I wish there was someone to blame, that would be a lot easier. We have to identify things that are supplemental to our core. Right now we have to play the hand we’ve been dealt.” In a perfect world, this is not a position that the school systems would be in but they are because of the economic crisis. Some of the tactics that the school systems are taking make more sense than others like putting sports on the same days so that the teams can ride the same bus or play schools that are closer to reduce the cost of transportation. One option that wasn’t mentioned often was more fund-raisers by the team and boosters; I think this is something that they all could benefit from to attempt to aid in the funding of programs or to help players that can’t afford to pay the fee to play. Sports are valuable to school systems in ways that can’t be measured by numbers. NFL Jets wide receiver, Brandon Marshall said: “There’s things that we learn on the field, on the court, in the locker room — that we can’t learn in the classroom.” Sports provide an outlet, family, motivation, and passion for students coming from various walks of life and in many instances where budget cuts are happening, the sports programs can and should be salvaged to keep this alive for as many students as possible.

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