School sports on chopping block

DAVID GARGONE

BY KEVIN WOODRUFF

With looming state budget cuts, it isn’t only academics that could suffer from economic shortages.

Local school districts have also been pondering ways to decrease costs associated with high school and junior high athletics.

Various ideas have been tossed around with mixed response, including introducing a “pay to play” model, cutting junior high athletics, scheduling boys’ and girls’ contests on the same night and consolidating sports with neighboring school districts.

David Gargone, director of Misericordia University’s sports management program, said that many of the ideas being tossed around could be beneficial in saving money.

When it comes to a “pay to play” model, where the districts would ask student-athletes to pay a fee to be involved with sports, Gargone said that it could save districts a substantial amount of money, but may create problems.

“It would certainly be effective in defraying some of the costs associated with athletics,” Gargone said. “But at the same time, it’s all in how a particular district implements it.

BOB GIMBLE

“Whether or not there are problems with it depends on the amount that each student is charged, and how to district responds to students with financial needs.”

Another issue with pay to play is the idea that parents can use paying for the right to play as leverage to get their child more playing time.

“I think that problem exists already,” Gargone said. “With high school athletes asked to sell sponsorships, give uniform donations and help out with the booster club.

“However, depending on how much money the school charges to play, the problem could be elevated if it gets into the hundreds or thousands of dollars range.”

Bob Gimble, former athletic director at Williamsport Area from 1970 to 1995, is familiar with the idea of charging an athletic fee.

Gimble introduced the concept into the Williamsport Area School District in 1992, and said it has been successful.

“I think that the first mistake is referring to an athletic fee as ‘pay to play,’” Gimble said. “At Williamsport it is an athletic fee that those who wish to be involved in sports pay at the beginning of the year.”

Gimble said that Williamsport charges a $40 fee at the beginning of the year, making a student eligible to participate in three sports throughout the course of the year.

“You pay the fee each year and are good to go to play whichever sports you like,” Gimble said.

He said that the athletic fee was necessary to keep the district from cutting athletic programs.

“We had a budget crisis, and the school board started talking about cutting sports programs,” Gimble said. “And I didn’t think it was fair to cut golf or tennis. Those programs are just as important to the athletes that participate in them as basketball and football is to the athletes that play those sports.”

Gimble said that the fee was never a problem when he served as athletic director, because he explained to parents the importance of the fee in a letter he sent out district-wide.

“It was a matter of either pay the fee, or the district will start cutting programs,” Gimble said. “And compared to some of the club teams the kids participate in, they were getting a good deal. We packed physicals, uniforms and transportation into our fee. You don’t get that with club sports.”

Gimble said that Williamsport generated around $29,000 to $30,000 a year towards keeping sports programs alive charging each student in grades seven through 12.

Gimble said that the school did not charge athletes who ended up being cut from the team, however, also did not issue refunds for players who quit the team.

Another idea that local districts have tossed around is scheduling boys’ and girls’ games on the same day.

Gargone said that he believes this is a good idea for schools looking to save money.

“It’s absolutely a big savings, and is used at the collegiate level all the time,” Gargone said. “Instead of two payments for transportation, it’s only one.”

The idea of cutting junior high sports is something that Gargone feels can be a good or bad idea, depending on the community where it is proposed.

“In some areas, youth sports are more privatized, and have shifted to club teams,” Gargone said. “In these areas, there is less of a reliance on junior high sports sanctioned by the school. However, they can be important in small communities.

“It’s a case-by-case scenario.”

With junior high programs, Gargone said he believes that parents would be more likely to give a small payment to the school rather than pay for an expensive club team.

“Parents I believe would be willing to pay a small fee and forego the larger payments to privatized teams,” Gargone said. “It’s more savings for them in the end.”

As far as combining athletic programs across two school districts, as has already been done with Blue Ridge and Susquehanna’s football, soccer, golf and wrestling programs, Gargone believes it’s a good idea.

“There are a lot of small districts in Pennsylvania especially,” Gargone said. “And combining programs is both competitively and financially wise for a lot of schools.”

Gargone also offered a few other ideas that schools could consider to cut some costs.

He mentioned that schools could compete in more tournaments to get in a larger amount of games in a smaller amount of time.

Gargone also said that shorter seasons and limited roster sizes could also be potential money-saving propositions for schools.

However, if budget cuts for school districts run long term, Gargone said that schools may need to re-evaluate the current way the high school sports system works.

“It’s tough. If these budget cuts go through, these schools are going to have to look at participation fees,” Gargone said. “And really examine the current structure of the way things are done.”

Gimble, who is also a PIAA football official in the Wyoming Valley Conference, said that schools are also looking to cut back on the amount of officials they use.

He said that PIAA officials will look to counter-offer districts proposals to cut out a sixth official at football games, with a proposal for a pay decrease to keep the extra official on the field.

“If there aren’t enough officials on the field for a game, then the kids are getting cheated,” Gimble said. “We’d rather see a pay cut, then not work at all.”