High School Sports Feel Squeeze From Budget Shortages

By Preston Williams
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 20, 2009

At least three school jurisdictions in the Washington area are considering eliminating certain sports or reducing the number of athletic contests for the upcoming school year, and others are rethinking how they transport athletes to competitions as they adjust to a shortage of state funding. Some school systems might ask athletes to pay to compete in sports or increase pay-to-play fees that already exist.

Interviews with school administrators throughout the area showed that athletic departments in most jurisdictions are feeling the budget squeeze.

"It's tough all across the country," said Les Cummings, supervisor of athletics for Loudoun County public schools. "Being a part of a school system and part of an instructional program, we all sort of have to bite the bullet and all pitch in and do our part. As much as we hate to lose anything, or not be where were in the past, we need to do what we have to do the next couple of years until the economy gets better."

Fairfax County will likely eliminate gymnastics and also is considering cutting indoor track. Frederick County, which has three schools with pools, has discussed eliminating swimming. Loudoun County is mulling doing away with some sub-varsity sports.

The Loudoun County School Board approved a proposed budget earlier this month that included $11.8 million in cuts and also called for implementing a $50 athletic fee per student per sport.

If Loudoun's Board of Supervisors wants the schools to cut more out of the proposed budget, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has presented three tiers for additional trims of 5, 10 and 15 percent. Under the 5 percent plan, the proposed athletic fee would be $100, and transportation funds for after-school activities would decrease by 25 percent. The 10 percent proposal would eliminate all freshman sports and junior varsity boys' and girls' lacrosse, and the athletic fee would increase to $200; after-school busing would be cut by 50 percent and the schools' assistant athletic director position would be eliminated, as well as funding for assistant athletic trainers. The 15 percent tier would cut all after-school busing, and the athletic fee would go up to $250.

The transportation cuts, should they be enacted, have not been clearly defined, Loudoun officials say, but it is possible that athletes and parents would have to provide their own transportation to events or rely on booster clubs and fundraisers to pay for busing.

"We're going to have to be creative if it gets to that point, no question," Cummings said.

In Fairfax County, dozens of speakers turned out last month for two public hearings to protest the proposed elimination of indoor track, a sport that involves about 2,800 students in the district. Fairfax is also discussing doing away with gymnastics, with between 125 and 200 participants countywide. Of the two, gymnastics is most likely to be eliminated, although the Fairfax budget will not be finalized until May.

In Montgomery County, the budget calls for $452,156 less in stipends for extracurricular activities, including sports, but county athletics supervisor Duke Beattie said he does not foresee any major changes in how school sports programs operate.

"The schools, historically, are very budget-conscious when it comes to athletics," Beattie said, citing that schools in Montgomery County are grouped into divisions to limit transportation costs. "Athletic departments are pretty much self-sustaining. You have gate receipts, and how much they are cycled back into the schools is one thing, but you also have booster clubs. . . . If one runs a program carefully, you can minimize your losses and keep things running for a long time."

Some jurisdictions, such as the District and Calvert County, are not far enough along in budget proceedings to determine how sports might be affected, the athletic heads in those areas said.

Fred Milbert, who supervises athletics for Prince William County public schools, said his athletic directors have felt the economic pinch at the gate. Those receipts and funds raised by teams and booster clubs pay for a lot of the athletic costs in Prince William.

"Almost all sports attendance is down," Milbert said. "In tournaments at the end of the [fall] season, the crowds haven't been there."

Milbert said he did not anticipate any sports being eliminated but that the county might have to rethink what it pays officials and how many sub-varsity games its teams play. Last week, Superintendent Steven L. Walts proposed adding a $50 activity fee per student per sport and replacing the county's middle school sports program with an intramural program.

Transportation costs are often the most worrisome high school sports expenditure, because they are the most unpredictable because of the price of gas.

The three Arlington County high schools have doubled up on transportation, sending freshman and junior varsity teams on the same bus to events, which means that each team has to sit through an extra game. And the schools have tried to curb overtime pay for custodians by reducing the number of practices on Saturdays or school holidays.

"We're trying our best to limit costs for the current year in the hopes that that will allow us to keep everything for next year," Yorktown Athletic Director Mike Krulfeld said.

Swimming is an expensive high school sports offering. For school systems that have pools, they must pay for chemicals, heat and maintenance of the facilities. For schools without pools, renting facilities -- and hauling students to and from them -- can consume a sizable chunk of an athletic budget.

Frederick County, which has pools at Frederick, Walkersville and Middletown high schools, has examined cutting swimming to save money.

Frederick is looking at ways to modify its meets, or allow its school swimming facilities to be more available to the public. The county is also considering trimming the number of freshman football and freshman basketball games its teams play and might increase its $65 user fee that each athlete pays per sport to compete.

In Prince George's, each high school received $22,000 for its sports programs this school year; county director of athletics Earl Hawkins expects that to dip by about 20 percent for next year. That money is used to cover costs that the county does not pay for, such as officials for scrimmages, uniforms, first aid equipment, scorebooks and other supplies. "They'll have to do more with less," Hawkins said.

Howard County has requested $2,722,160 to run its school athletic programs in fiscal year 2010, $4,430 more than the 2009 budget.

"We're holding the line right now," said Mike Williams, the Howard athletics program coordinator. "Our athletic budget is roughly half a percent of our whole operating budget. It's not some place that you'd realistically look to cut a lot of money."

In Anne Arundel, the county projects a budget increase of $284,149, with an estimated $4,892,874 budget for athletics. Anne Arundel schools are trying to schedule more nearby opponents and host tournaments and events instead of travel to them.

"We're trying to avoid cutting sports at all costs," said Greg LeGrand, supervisor of Anne Arundel's athletic program.

"We're trying to reel in the number of scrimmages we go to and the distances we travel to invitational events."

Charles County is an anomaly. It is adding a sport -- lacrosse -- this spring and also recently tacked on the expense of having a certified athletic trainer at a cost of $30,000 per school.

"I've been told personally that we will not cut sports," said Jan Johnson, athletics specialist for Charles County schools. "The bottom line is the superintendent [James E. Richmond] is in full support of all our athletic programs. He has made it clear he will not cut athletic programs and that he sees it as an integral part of a student's education."

Staff writers Josh Barr, Katie Carrera, Alan Goldenbach, Matthew Stanmyre and Paul Tenorio contributed to this report.

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