The Ballou High gym was repaired this past summer after being shut down more than a year ago because a leaky roof had caused the floor to warp. For nearly two seasons, there were no funds for repairs.
With no home court for basketball games, the boys team last season ran laps and conducted drills in the hallways of the Southeast school before gaining access to the gym at nearby P.R. Harris Middle School. The girls team played a few "home" games there. When that facility was unavailable, which was often, the teams simply didn't practice or were forced to find another place to play.
But Ballou's student-athletes completed their seasons despite the difficulties. Officials at the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association said the student-athletes at its other 15 senior high schools would have to do the same. Over the past several years, a lack of funding for the upkeep of the District's facilities and deep cuts in the DCIAA budget have resulted in an increasing number of rundown fields, courts and locker rooms, a steady decay of overused equipment and, ultimately, a loss of enthusiasm among coaches and athletes.
The problems were detailed--before the most severe cuts--in a scathing 1987 report by the Task Force on Interscholastic Athletics, which was the first of three studies commissioned in the past 12 years by D.C. Public Schools, which oversees the DCIAA, to assess the state of its sports programs. That report concluded the DCIAA was in a "state of crisis." Regardless, the school system which oversees the DCIAA has cut the budget for the league by 48 percent, from approximately $3 million to $1.57 million, since 1992. The Army Corps of Engineers conducted the latest assessment of the District's facilities between August and December of 1998 and confirmed several structures were desperately in need of repairs.
The DCIAA's budget does not include facility upkeep and repair. That falls under the facilities division of the D.C. Public Schools' budget. Jonathan Travers, the DCPS deputy budget director, said much of the money needed for athletic and sports repairs comes out of this division. For fiscal year 1999, the facilities division had approximately $22 million in operating funds.
"It's very frustrating," Ballou boys basketball coach Ernest Bowman said before the renovations began on the school's gym. "I haven't had a chance to play any home games in about two years. Some of [the players] are considering transferring if they don't have a gym [this season]. They are all talking about it."
Without home games, the next step often is no team. Bruce Bradford knows. His H.D. Woodson swimming team, perennially one of the District's best, had to travel just to practice when its pool was shut down during the 1997-98 season. Faced with the same prospect last season, most swimmers decided not to bother trying out, and the season was canceled.
"[The] Pool is presently left filled with unfiltered or untreated water," said the Army Corps of Engineers report on Woodson, which was released in August 1998. "Doors are kept locked, but pool should be drained for safety. With the pool built into the structure of the building, it is unsafe to leave it inoperable. The pool needs to be repaired and kept operational."
The pool was repaired this past summer, a year after that report was released. Woodson Athletic Director Bob Headen said he did not have an estimate on the cost of the repairs, but said the school expects to have a swim team this season.
Like Woodson's pool, Wilson's pool also was a "danger," the Corps concluded. When in use, it sometimes flooded electrical panels, and therefore has been drained.
The Corps also discovered a host of other, smaller athletic facility issues that need to be addressed: a gym floor that "must be replaced" and a boys locker room that has been condemned at Duke Ellington School of the Arts; a leaky roof and bleachers that "should be replaced" at Banneker's gym; insufficient security around the fields at Dunbar; and a "gutted" locker room at Spingarn.
Anacostia's track is in such poor condition, it's "really not a track," said Darlene Allen, PTA president at the school. "There is a path there."
Jostling the System
Ralph Neal said the task force's recommendations in 1987 may have been ignored because of administrative instability, but probably not neglect. Neal is the assistant superintendent for student services and oversees athletics in the District.
"You can make a recommendation in 1987 and when you give it to a superintendent, all of a sudden there is a different superintendent," he said. "I'm not saying it has gotten lost in the shuffle, but you need some continuity. We have had five superintendents since then."
Kent Amos, who chaired the task force then, concurred.
"It's a priority question," Amos said. "They keep falling lower and lower on the priority list. Every agenda needs an advocate to vie for their piece of an overall economic budget. It's down the pecking order to where it is treated as a normal budget item. From time to time, you have to jostle the system."
Allen Chin, athletic director for the DCIAA, said that instead of jostling the system, too often the system has jostled him. He would like an increased budget, but said at times he would settle for a visible one.
"It was like pulling teeth when we wanted to get [a copy of] our budget," Chin said of the mid-'90s. "If we don't spend all our money at one time, if there is money left at the end of the year, the money seems to get lost."
Even when money doesn't "get lost," one can question how it has been spent. Earlier this decade, Anacostia and McKinley were each tabbed to receive $1.5 million stadiums. Anacostia's stadium was put on indefinite hold, but not before the school system spent $43,000 designing it. Neal said he is trying to revive the project. At McKinley, $290,000 was spent in 1993 to improve the existing stadium site. Four years later, the school closed, and the incomplete site is now "off limits" to teams, Chin said.
Anacostia's eight-years-and-counting wait for its stadium is an extreme instance of a common problem, said several school administrators who have had difficulty receiving funds. Getting money budgeted for a project doesn't always result in actually getting the money.
"It's actually better when they tell you 'no,' " said one school official who did not want to be identified and has struggled to secure promised funding. "When they tell you 'yes,' and it never happens, what leverage do you have? If you go to somebody else and say, 'They haven't done it,' they come back and say, 'They said they will do it.'
"It was easier when they said no. You could go to other places, to private funders, to council members."
With limited budgets, schools often try to raise money on their own. But it's not easy. In a recent well-publicized case, Reginald Moss, who is the principal at Alice Deal Junior High, attempted to earn extra cash for athletics and other basics by allowing Domino's Pizza to sell food on the grounds of the Northwest school in exchange for a share of the profits. Moss later was suspended for competing with the school-lunch program. Schools used to put vending-machine profits toward athletics, but "the school system's central office has moved in to take the lion's share from vending machines," said Mary Levy of Parents United, a District-based advocacy group.
Officials at Anacostia would love to use football ticket sales to help repair some of the school's dilapidated facilities. But it's hard to collect admission when fans can enter the stadium for free through gaping holes in the fence.
Furthermore, Anacostia's ticket booth is "in danger of collapsing," according to the Army Corps of Engineers' report. "[It] represents a hazard. Must be fixed or removed."
The Corps also found a similar ticket booth at Cardozo that was "damaged and could potentially fall down." The Corps' reports on those two schools were released in August 1998, yet both ticket booths remain in operation.
In some parts of the country, sponsorships are a key supplement of interscholastic athletics funding. Blake Rees, assistant director of the Indiana High School Athletic Association, said public schools in his state owe much to sponsorships.
Rees said the school system pays salaries, but athletic departments must purchase uniforms and equipment. Schools often seek sponsorships of at least $1,000, and in some cases, suburban Indianapolis schools have received grants as high as $10,000 to $15,000.
District schools have had mixed results getting sponsorships.
"The business of the city is government," Chin said. "There aren't many corporations. [But] I'll try anything."
So will Wilson and other schools. Eddie Saah, Wilson's athletic director and baseball coach, formed a booster club about four years ago to help sustain his department. He said the club brought in $10,000 to $15,000 this past year.
"That's the only thing that's been keeping our program alive," Saah said.
Anacostia Athletic Director Eileen Covington said she is always looking for different ways to raise money. Last year, she got a grant from Ocean Spray.
"Basically, I've become a realist, and I've realized that there's a lot of things we need to do, and we need money to do them," Covington said. "You try to find ways to do creative financing."
Dunbar's football team, the DCIAA champion, plays games in Cleveland and Zanesville, Ohio, this season, road trips that are becoming more typical for District schools. The school will make both trips by bus and bring in guarantees totaling $10,000 to $15,000.
Several other DCIAA athletic directors also said they spend much more time than they would like trying to raise money because of the poor financial state of their schools.
"Coaches are coaches, but you still have to be fund-raisers," Covington said.
District athletic programs place a greater burden on coaches than most schools. DCIAA coaches often add car-pooling, fund-raising and equipment-purchasing to their already considerable duties.
Yet they are paid as little as half as much as their suburban counterparts. For the 1999 fiscal year, the extra-duty pay budget is $1.6 million. Head football coaches earn approximately $2,000 per season--still well below what Montgomery County coaches were paid as far back as 1987. Factoring in inflation, head football coaches have actually taken a 10 percent pay cut since 1987, when the school system's Task Force on Interscholastic Athletics referred to their pay as "inadequate" and asked that it be doubled.
Head football coaches, who deal with more athletes for a longer period than other coaches, are the highest-paid coaches in the District. Head basketball coaches usually earn approximately $1,700. At 20 hours per week over a 14-week season (including preseason practice), that's $6.07 per hour.
"Our pay is miserable," said Frank Parks, executive director of the 150-member DCIAA coaches association. "That's why they don't necessarily get good coaches and that's why the good coaches quit."
When coaches leave the system, they usually find the grass really is greener on the other side of the street--and so are their wallets. Head football coaches in the 23 schools in Baltimore County, by comparison, make approximately $3,900 per season.
The DCIAA's extra-duty pay budget, which subsidizes coaches and other extra-curricular advisors, was $1.6 million--a figure unchanged since the early 1990s. When the task force convened in 1987, coaches in the District were paid far less than coaches in most surrounding suburbs. Head football coaches in the District were paid $1,500 per season and two assistants at each school received $700 apiece. By contrast, head football coaches in Montgomery County received $3,258 and four assistants at each school were paid $2,799 apiece. The task force recommended a boost in the extra-duty pay budget, to nearly $3 million.
But the budget will increase next year to only $1.7 million, Neal said.
"We are concerned about the equity in pay compared to the suburbs," Neal said. "If we look at the teachers' salaries in surrounding districts, it's slightly higher in the counties. The superintendent [Arlene Ackerman] has made a concerted effort to make teachers' salaries equitable. I'm sure we will do the same with extra-duty pay."
One reason coaches' pay has remained so low is that other than Parks, the coaches have no advocate. The extra-duty pay budget is not part of the Washington Teachers Union's contract with the school system. That contract stipulates that teachers received raises of 4.5 percent last year and 5 percent for the upcoming year.
Lack of Equipment
Kifah W. Jayyousi, facilities director for D.C. Public Schools, said if he had his choice, he would like to put $6 million into improving fields now and another $4 million over the next few years. His calculation does not include money for other facilities.
Financing for capital improvements are not all that's missing. The elimination of each team's equipment allotment leaves teams strapped, with little left for emergencies. When all of Spingarn's baseball equipment was stolen from assistant coach Steve Powell's car this past spring, the school was in a bind, Athletic Director Bruce Williams said.
Williams said he had to dip into a separate school account and get credit at a local store to replace the bats, helmets, shin guards, chest protectors and balls. Spingarn also had to borrow equipment from opponents.
"Now, you get it any way you can," Williams said.
Wilson's Saah asks his players to use their own bats because the school doesn't purchase them.
As Dunbar's baseball team challenged for the DCIAA title last season, assistant athletic director Mike McLeese marveled at his team's lack of resources.
"I don't think the necessary powers that be understand how we get it done on little or nothing," McLeese said during the spring. "My baseball team [has] two bats. We're [one of the top teams] in the DCIAA and we have two bats. We have about six helmets."
Dunbar lost to Wilson in the championship game, which was slowed because Dunbar players and coaches continually had to retrieve bats for teammates coming to the plate.
The lack of equipment also is common for Dunbar's football team. Coach Craig Jefferies said his players often don't have travel bags for road games, blocking shields for practice drills or rain gear. A shortage of practice fields in the District creates a busy schedule on the school's football field.
"We'll probably be playing on all dirt by the middle of September," Jefferies said in August. A recent visit to his field, also used by Dunbar's junior varsity team and various junior high schools and recreation leagues in the area, showed that it is not quite all dirt, but the middle-third of the field is worn away, making footing tricky even on dry afternoons. The rainy weather in the past month has only made the surface worse.
One of Jefferies's players, running back Jerome Bowling, said players in the District realize they have to make do with less because of the minimal financial support. He said players sometimes "feel a sadness" when they travel to other schools that have more of everything. But these shortcomings, Bowling said, give District players in all sports some pride in trying to make good from a disadvantage, almost like being the underdog in a game. Bowling remembers when the Crimson Tide traveled to play at Western Maryland power Fort Hill last season.
"Fort Hill had a new field, and the locker room was really big," Bowling said. "It was kind of fun playing there. It just seemed like more than just a high school game."
Bowling's teammate Michael Coles, a senior quarterback/tight end, said: "It makes me kind of mad that [other schools] have it better than we do. When we play their football team, we just want to humiliate them, and show them that we come from a nice facility, too."
Intended as an outlet for students, athletics have become another reminder of how tough life can be in the city.
Staff writer Jonell Priddle contributed to this report.