Fewer Students Playing Sports

Superintendent doubts that $200 fee accounts for the change

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Participation in school sports has dwindled every year since the Payson Unified School District imposed fees, but the sports and extracurricular programs still aren’t breaking even, the board learned at its meeting this week.

The number of students participating in a single sport at the high school has dropped 22 percent since the 2008-09 school year. The declines have been even sharper among students participating in two or three sports — with declines of up to 50 percent.

Declines at the middle school have been less with a 2-percent drop in single-sport participants and a 50-percent drop in students participating in three sports.

Faced with shrinking budgets in the classroom, the district two years ago imposed a $200 fee for the first sport at the high school and a $75 fee at the middle school. High school parents pay an extra $50 for the second sport with a family cap of $400. The family cap at the middle school is set at $150.

Board member Barbara Shepherd questioned the cost of sports fees, “Do you believe the fees are too high and keep students from playing? Our financial problems should not burden parents,” she said.

Superintendent Casey O’Brien said that participation did not decline dramatically, especially given the 7-percent decline in district enrollment in the same period. He estimated that fewer than 10 percent of students sought fee waivers through the scholarship program set up when the board approved the fees.

O’Brien said, “If you look at each individual sport over the last three years, you can see that there is a fair amount of fluctuation. Interest, coaches, enrollment are all factors. I don’t see fees as a variable that is significant. Another variable which may be impacting participation in more than one sport — increased graduation requirements in math and science — more time to have to hit the books. Also, are more kids working? Wish I had a demographer to help us out.”

All told, the fees and ticket sales brought in about $95,000, which offset most of the personnel costs of running the program — including salaries for coaches and ticket takers at games.

When other costs for the sports programs are included, the district spent about $60,000 more on sports than it took in, said O’Brien.

Many parents also contribute separately to various extracurricular programs, especially the football program. Donations through programs like the Credit for Kids tax write-off go into separate accounts.

Only two board members attended the June 26 meeting, with board member Rory Huff participating by phone for a portion of the meeting. The board ended up without a quorum to take action on setting sports fees for next year.

Huff called in from his Montana vacation. However, as soon as the board tallied votes on the consent agenda, this year’s meeting schedule and adopting sports training software, Huff signed off. “I’m at the top of a hill here and I’m blocking about five cars,” he said.

For the remainder of the meeting, Board President Barbara Underwood and member Barbara Shepherd reviewed the proposed budget for Payson’s sports programs.

Opening the discussion, O’Brien said the fees helped offset costs for the athletic program, but, “You can also see by a large measure, the district didn’t recover costs of these extracurricular programs,” he said.

The district took in $59,165 in fees, $25,000 in gate fees at games and $6,000 in sales for annual passes. The district paid out $78,000 in salaries for coaches, $8,000 in salaries for ticket takers, and $14,000 in salaries for teachers who ran clubs and other extracurricular programs. Salaries for the non-sports programs declined 25 percent.

On the other side, student participation has steadily declined. The reasons cited: decreasing school enrollment and more kids choosing alternative pursuits because, “It’s a big commitment to do sports,” said O’Brien.

At previous board meetings, parents have complained about the cost of attending matches and games to watch their children compete — saying the per-person charges make attending the events very expensive.

Throughout the discussion, Shepherd questioned the cost of sports fees. Both O’Brien and Rob Varner, last year’s athletic director, said they felt the fees were in a fair range for parents. “Only three people contacted me about waiving fees,” said Varner.

If you lower fees, the shift goes onto the school’s operating budget and you will see staff losses,” said Bobette Tomerlin, business manager for the district.

O’Brien said that the fees and ticket charges raised enough money to cover the salaries and benefits of two teachers.

The school board made no final decision on sports fees at this meeting. “The protocols for sports fees will be discussed in a future meeting,” said O’Brien.

Interviewed later, O’Brien said “It’s good news that the fees have made a difference, but the shortfall is still significant. I can’t see increasing them, but to lower them you’d have to cut somewhere else.”

He said $100,000 in fees and ticket sales doesn’t sound like much set against a $12-million operating budget, but eliminating the fees could require painful cuts elsewhere.

“It is significant when we’re so lean already. If we were growing, we could absorb it. Unfortunately, fees are now more the rule than the exception. Five years ago, it was unheard of.”

The fees apparently didn’t deter students from participating in the most popular sports. The number of students playing both football and basketball at the high school increased slightly from 2009 — to 72 for football and 36 for basketball. Participation in wrestling and volleyball also increased slightly.

All the other sports reported drops, including baseball, soccer, cross country, girls basketball, golf, girls soccer, softball and track.

The figures revealed a big drop in the financial account for the football team. Last year, the football program had $25,000 in its supplemental account. At present, it has about $4,000 — although a major fund-raiser should boost that tally soon.

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