In Fairfax County, Two Sports in Jeopardy

By B.J. Koubaroulis
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, November 20, 2008

Fairfax County high school gymnastics and indoor track could be eliminated when the 2010 budget is adopted in May as the school district copes with a $170 million shortfall. School officials say the measure would affect about 2,600 athletes and save the county an estimated $471,000.

Schools Superintendent Jack D. Dale unveiled three budget proposals at a Fairfax County Board of Supervisors meeting last week. Each proposal called for gymnastics to be cut; indoor track would be nixed in the most severe proposal, which also included cuts of $219 million and the elimination of 1,500 county schools positions.

"There are going to be cuts," said Fairfax County Director of Student Activities Bill Curran, noting most of the cuts are not related to athletics. "We're looking at taking the impacts that we can survive and maintaining as many of our programs as we can."

Such a move, made in a county that has been ranked among the nation's wealthiest and with 24 of its 25 schools appearing on Newsweek's 2008 list of America's top public high schools, is a consequence of the nation's economic crisis. Fairfax, a county with a median household income of more than $100,000, has experienced a steep decline in housing prices and anticipated property tax revenue, according to Curran.

"It simply isn't realistic to think we can operate with vast budget cuts and not talk about the athletics. It's all got to go together," Curran said.

Fairfax, however, appears to be the only county in the Washington area willing to cut sports. School athletic officials in Arlington, Loudoun, Prince William, Spotsylvania, Montgomery, Prince George's, Howard, Anne Arundel, Charles, St. Mary's and Calvert counties, plus Alexandria and the District, say they do not plan to eliminate any high school sports.

All of those jurisdictions except Loudoun offer indoor track; in Maryland, only Montgomery and Anne Arundel offer gymnastics.

Curran said Fairfax targeted gymnastics and indoor track for cuts because there were other avenues for those athletes to compete. "Gymnastics has it at the private level [club gymnastics], and track really had it in the spring," Curran said. "There are still some opportunities to run in the spring and for distance runners to do cross-country in the fall." According to the FCPS schools' budget-cutting proposal, cutting track would save $250,000.

"I don't know why track would be targeted. Think about it -- it's so simple. For a poor kid, all you need is a pair of shoes and a good coach," said Herndon's Peter Sherry, who coaches the school's indoor, outdoor and cross-country teams.

Gymnastics cuts would affect approximately 125 female athletes and save the county an additional $221,000 through the elimination of 25 head coaching supplements, 25 assistant coach supplements, officials fees and transportation. In Fairfax County, a head gymnastics coach is paid a $4,000 stipend.

"We've seen a steady decline in participation over the past seven or eight years," Curran said of gymnastics. "It's been on the table for the past few years."

Curran said that 14 of 25 Fairfax schools fielded gymnastics teams last winter. In 2002, Fairfax County had 21 active teams and had more than 200 girls participating.

"Because [gymnastics] is not in every school, not everyone supports it," said W.T. Woodson Coach Mike Cooper, whose teams have won more than two dozen local and state boys' and girls' titles in his 25-year career. "Because some schools don't have a team, it's easy to say, 'Yes, let's cut it.' The schools that have it and support the program see that it's beneficial."

About 2,500 students participate in indoor track, which has long served as a catch-all sport for athletes looking for a way to train during the offseason.

"All of the sudden you are sending 2,500 kids out into traffic, out into the streets with nothing to do," Sherry said.

Since the boys' indoor track and field state meet became an official VHSL championship event in 1950, Northern Region teams have won 18 state titles. The girls' teams have combined for 14 of 27 titles since the girls' meet became official in 1982. In February, the Fairfax County Park Authority entertained several proposals that called for a 250,000-square-foot indoor track facility at Laurel Hill Park, the site of the former Lorton Penitentiary. "We had a lot of discussion, but ultimately, with no funding, there was no plan," Curran said.

Fairfax County schools must travel to meets all over the East Coast, and run a majority of their indoor meets at the Prince George's Sports & Learning Complex, an 80-acre facility adjacent to FedEx Field in Landover. Travel costs to the county were $92,000 last year, Curran said.

"We don't have a facility that supports it," Curran said.

Centreville Principal Mike Campbell, chairman of the Northern Region Council, a group of athletic directors and principals, said that Fairfax schools are considering running indoor meets outdoors this season and weighing several other "creative solutions," Campbell said.

Losing Fairfax County's 25 indoor track teams would make the "Northern Region championship very interesting, between four or five schools," said T.C. Williams Principal Bill Clendaniel, whose school is located in Alexandria.

Washington-Lee, Wakefield and Yorktown (all located in Arlington), T.C. Williams and Loudoun's Stone Bridge compete in the Northern Region but are funded separately.

Curran said that future cuts in the county sports program would not target any individual sports but would be made by trimming a "little bit from everywhere," such as reducing the number of games at the non-varsity level.

Swimming, which has often been a candidate for cuts in the past, was not an option during the evaluation process because Curran said the sport had not seen a decline in participation.

This is not the first time high school sports in the area have felt the bottom line. When facing a budget shortfall in 1991, Fairfax cut the number of sporting events for every team, other than varsity football and boys' and girls' basketball, by one to four games. Other events, many on the sub-varsity level, were dropped, but no sports were eliminated.

In 1992, Fairfax proposed cutting swimming and diving, which prompted such a furious, well-organized "Save Our Sport" outcry that the program was restored to the budget. Boys' gymnastics and freshman cheerleading also were among proposed cuts that year, but they, too, were spared.

Nationally, the school board in Mount Vernon, N.Y., last summer eliminated funding for its high school sports after voters twice rejected a proposed budget; however, because of donations to a "Save Our Sports" initiative -- including a reported $100,000 from former resident and actor Denzel Washington -- sports have survived in Mount Vernon, for now.

In March, nearly 1,000 students at Encinal High School in Alameda, Calif., staged a walkout, leaving their classrooms and marching two miles to the superintendent's office in protest of the local school board's decision to cut the high schools' sports budget by 57 percent. A $120 per parcel tax passed in June, saving the school district's athletic program.

Curran did not know if a "Save Our Sports" initiative would work.

"I went this morning to ask that question and I was told that was up to the school board," Curran said.

Robinson Director of Student Activities Marty Riddle said he is exploring sponsorship options, recently meeting with a marketing firm to discuss a regionwide sponsorship of Northern Region athletics.

"It's something we're in the very tentative stages of investigating," Riddle said. "One of the untapped resources, from a marketing standpoint, is high school athletics and how they can be generating more money for us as schools. It's a fine line because you don't want a school to go overboard, but at the same time, if it's a revenue stream that hasn't been tapped. . . . We'll see if we can find a happy medium in there."

The school board is holding budget-specific public hearings Jan. 26-27 and May 12-13, and the Board of Supervisors will hold public hearings March 31-April 2.

Staff writer Preston Williams contributed to this report.

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