Colorado school athletics get a sporting chance
The Denver Post
Denver, CO Colorado
DENVER, Colorado ” The dour economy has cast a shadow over Colorado high schools this spring, leaving districts to agonize over budget cuts that could mean larger classes, four-day weeks and shrinking bus routes.
But even in tough times, sports remain intact.
Certainly, high school athletic directors have made trims. They squeeze an extra season out of uniforms, have kids provide their own transportation to games ” and even certify the coach to drive the team bus.
At stake are programs that studies cast as cost-effective contributors to everything from grade-point average to girls’ health. A look at several Colorado high school sports budgets bolsters that perception ” most consume about 2 percent of general fund spending, while engaging up to 70 percent of a school’s students.
But the numbers also reveal differences, with a range of fees and fundraising ability separating the well-off from the barely surviving.
“People think that schools just shove money into athletics left and right,” said Steve Longwell, athletic director at Eaton High School. “In the whole big picture, though, it’s a very small percentage.”
Schools use a variety of accounting systems, often making direct financial comparisons difficult.
Some schools, such as Regis Jesuit High in Aurora, devote a larger fraction of their overall budget to athletics ” 5.68 percent, in this case. But the school pays for sports entirely from its general fund, without participation fees.
“We try to keep all aspects of our program strong,” said school president the Rev. Philip Steele, whose teams are fresh off state championships in basketball and ice hockey. “It’s not a sacred cow, but it’s something we want to avoid cutting if we can.”
Jeffrey Smith, a sophomore hurdler at George Washington High School in Denver, said the grade requirements for sports give students a reason to perform better.
“They can use that passion they have for sports as motivation to keep their average up,” he said.
Smith doesn’t see how George Washington could survive cuts to its sports budget, when the track team practices without starting blocks and struggles to find four matching uniforms for a relay team.
At the spring meeting of the Colorado High School Activities Association, the board soundly rejected proposals to trim the maximum allowable games in several sports by 10 percent. But it also tweaked its basketball playoff system to cut travel costs.
Still, the CHSAA’s commissioner, Bill Reader, remains concerned about next year.
“We’re on the precipice,” he said. “By then, people may have been out of work for six months, or figure they’re upside-down with their mortgage, and things are going to be tighter.”
As schools brace for that possibility, they consider their options and seize opportunities. In Mesa County, where enrollment has risen, the school district added a sport ” through outsourcing. An amateur lacrosse club offered to fund the program.
But as the oil boom recedes, the district is looking for cuts, particularly in travel, which eats up more than one-third of the district’s sports budget, athletic director Paul Cain estimated. Many coaches have been trained to drive 14-passenger activity buses, and the district may cut meal allowances.
Some districts have considered reducing the number of levels offered in a sport, perhaps eliminating a sophomore squad.
ThunderRidge athletic director Bob Nelson staunchly resists that approach.
“In my mind,” he said, “that’s 15 more kids at home in the afternoon with nothing better to do.”
Declining enrollment has compounded budget woes in northeast Colorado, where the RE-1 Valley School District hasn’t cut sports, but cautions everything is on the table.
Superintendent Betty Summers hoped to find a receptive ear to the proposal to trim the sports schedule statewide ” something she calls an “equity issue.” But she was the lone voice at the CHSAA meeting to speak in favor of the measure.
“If our district has to reduce things, it’s hard to explain to the kids why we’re reducing and no one else is,” she said.
For many schools, fundraising looms crucial in bridging the gap created by the economic crisis. And that’s where the division between haves and have-nots is most glaring.
At ThunderRidge, athletic director Nelson said the district contribution and participation fees “don’t come close” to funding sports. Parent organizers rake in about $300,000 per year at the 1,700-enrollment Douglas County school, where roughly half the students play on at least one team.
“We’re very fortunate we have supportive parents,” said Nelson, adding that things could be tougher in the coming year. “People who might have donated $300 to a program their kid is in, that’s not happening as much.”
Regis, like some other schools, has a policy against fundraising for specific sports, under the philosophy that nearly $10,000 per year in tuition is enough of a financial commitment. And yet there has been some resistance.
“It goes against the grain in some ways, because parents are passionate about the sports their kids are playing and want to be sure they have everything they need,” said president Steele. “It’s a struggle to get some parents to buy into a philosophy of supporting the whole school, and let the school put what’s needed in the budget.”
At an enrollment of 370 students, Faith Christian High School in Arvada reflects the same philosophical aversion to fundraising, but still feels the pinch of a bad economy.
“We’ve kind of avoided that until the past couple years, because we didn’t want to be double-dipping with parents and grandparents,” said athletic director Blair Hubbard. “But we’ve opened that up a little bit to see how it goes, and it’ll probably expand a little bit.”
Most schools use add-on activity fees to help cover expenses, ranging from $50 per sport in Eaton to $125 in Jefferson County. Some charge less for second and third sports.
Randy Miller, superintendent of Eaton schools, doesn’t see that district’s fees rising in the near future.
“We’ve tried our best to maintain all programs, whether it’s athletics, music, arts or whatever,” Miller said. “We’re trying to do that without making cuts. But who knows? A year from now that could change.”
On the Net:
Colorado High School Activities Association: http://www.chsaa.org