First of two parts
Almost two hours after the last fan had trickled out of his school's football stadium Saturday night, Potomac High School Activities Director Frank Higgins remained at the field counting gate receipts and closing his concession stand. It was just another long night in a school year booked with them.
Higgins and his colleagues at the other six Prince William County high schools are arguably their schools' most visible representatives, but it is the seemingly anonymous tasks that dominate their job.
"It's all the things people don't think about," Higgins said. "Anything that does not happen in the classroom is our responsibility, as hard as that may be to believe."
Their responsibilities increased last month when the Prince William County School Board awarded varsity status to girls lacrosse, the seventh new sport approved in less than two years. It was a move that created dozens of opportunities for enthusiasts of girls lacrosse--and one more headache for the seven activities directors.
The addition of yet another sport--boys and girls crew, boys and girls swimming, field hockey and boys lacrosse were approved in February 1998--has raised questions about how many activities a high school can handle while at the same time providing adequate practice space for athletes and a safe environment for spectators.
"We're killing our staff," said School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly, who decried the addition of girls lacrosse because of the further strain it would place on both activities directors and other administrators, such as assistant principals, who are required to help oversee athletic events. "These people can only do so much. We don't have enough administrators to provide supervision. We're going to have to do something."
In recent years, the county has implemented a $3,000 supplement--now $4,000 since the addition of girls lacrosse--for activities directors to use to hire staff members to help supervise athletic events. But when the typical high school hosts about 150 such events each school year, the supplement stretches only so far. Even with the additional funds, many schools struggle to round up sufficient supervisory help.
"When you talk to people today, it's not like it was 30 years ago when you didn't have any trouble getting people to volunteer to work night events," Gar-Field Activities Director Chuck Robinson said. "The first question when I ask somebody now is, how much am I going to make? People don't work for nothing anymore. It's difficult to find anybody willing."
Kelly believes the demands the activities supervision has placed on assistant principals has scared off potential applicants for those jobs. Rick Fitzgerald, personnel director for Prince William County Public Schools, said there are 43 candidates in the county's current pool of aspiring assistant high school principals.
"We don't see that as being a critical shortage as of yet, but I can assure you I don't think things will get any better along those lines," Fitzgerald said. "We used to have a bit more than that, and the numbers are declining."
Kelly has reservations about non-administrators, such as teachers, supervising events because he believes they do not necessarily carry the same clout with students as an activities director or assistant principal.
"The problem is you get Mr. Jones or Ms. Smith to go out, but they're teachers, and some kids may have them for class but don't recognize them as an administrator," Kelly said. "It's different than sending an assistant principal or activities director to supervise. To enforce good sportsmanship, you need good supervision."
Kelly said there have been crowd incidents at events in recent years, including an occasion when parents were "getting ugly" at a baseball game, but no one defining incident that has piqued his concern.
"You worry a lot," Kelly said. "One thing you always fear is some sort of accident and a youngster getting seriously hurt."
A Question of Space
Brentsville Activities Director Sonny Hagy recalls a day when his school hosted Region B tournament games in baseball, softball, boys soccer and girls soccer.
"We are 'pleasantly displeased' when this happens," Hagy said, "because that means we have been very competitive in all the activities. But when you have to host them all in one day . . . the pool of help is slim."
Supervision is not the only issue raised by additional sports. Some schools, with no available practice space for lacrosse teams, will have to send those squads off campus for workouts. (By their nature, crew and swimming already are off-campus sports.)
"We had no room at the inn," said Higgins, who by sending his lacrosse teams off school grounds must arrange for buses to transport them.
"In the spring," said Stonewall Jackson Activities Director Doug Dean, "we have four soccer teams and two lacrosse teams and right now we're adding [girls lacrosse]. We're talking about seven teams. I don't have seven fields. If we keep playing on the same field all the time, it's eventually going to get destroyed."
Fields are something the activities directors know all too well. Many mow and line their fields because there is no one else to do it. Dean said some of Stonewall's booster club members were surprised to learn he paints the football field on the Fridays the Raiders play at home. They also might see him sweeping out a bathroom or pushing mud off a field.
"We do a little bit of everything, from a tractor to shirts and ties," Dean said.
Spreading Themselves Thin
It is common for an activities director to arrive at school at 7 a.m. and depart at 10 p.m. several days a week. Some nights, particularly in the spring--the most hectic high school sports season because of the number of sports offered and the number of rainouts--activities directors might work such hours for days at a time.
"You never see your house until it's dark," Hylton Activities Director Jim Qualls said. "It's like a second night school. It's never-ending. It's not manageable. There's never a break, anywhere. I'm at everything we have at home, every athletic event we have on our site. If something goes wrong, somebody has to be there to correct it, whether it's the [public address] system, lights or fire alarm. The AD is still responsible, no matter what."
Making sure the school's several hundred--some schools have closer to 1,000--athletes are eligible can be a painstaking process because one error could derail a team's season. Osbourn Park had to forfeit four football wins in 1997 for unknowingly using an ineligible player. During the 1996-97 school year, 26 Virginia High School League schools had to forfeit games in various sports for that reason, including the Brentsville boys soccer team, which was stripped of seven victories. The Potomac football team had to forfeit two games in the mid-1990s.
According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, participation in high school sports is at an all-time high. Activities directors say the swelling programs are an indication of the growing importance society is placing on youth sports.
"The expectations put on high school activities programs have really increased over the past 10 years," Woodbridge Activities Director Wes Bergazzi said. "Having more year-round programs raises expectations because the level of commitment has changed and put a lot of pressure on high schools to mirror that."
But despite the long hours and myriad responsibilities, the activities directors all say they enjoy what they do. They just wish there were more people to help them do it.
"There's job satisfaction," Higgins said. "You make a lot of decisions, and what you do impacts on a lot of people in a positive manner. We'd all like to do that."
Juggling Diverse Duties
On the Stonewall Jackson High School Web site, Activities Director Doug Dean's biography gives an indication of the breadth of his responsibilities:
* Building rentals
* Activities handbook
* School photography
* Booster clubs
* Rental contracts
"If you've ever planned a wedding, or a Thanksgiving, or a family function, you have an idea of all that goes into it," said South Lakes Activities Director Dave Morgan, president of the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.
Working Hard for the Money
A Prince William County activities director's salary can range from $34,862 to $68,405 a year, based on college degree and experience. The average is about $51,800, said Rick Fitzgerald, personnel director for Prince William County Public Schools.
Considering time worked, however, the salary seems lower, Brentsville Activities Director Sonny Hagy said.
"All of us could teach and then when school's out go to 7-Eleven and work the same hours and make a lot more money," he said.
Stonewall Jackson AD Doug Dean said that one school year he counted 110 nights he worked. Asked whether he would apply for his job again, knowing what he knows now, Dean said: "I'd have to think real hard. I'm not sure I would."