Signs of the Times
Between increasing gas prices and a down economy, most athletic directors are dealing with squeezed budgets this fall. Some have been hit even harder and are battling major cuts that are threatening their programs. But they're finding ways to survive by cutting back and getting creative.
Cuts In California: As a result of statewide budget cuts, the Alameda (Calif.) Unified School District faced a $4.5 million budget shortfall this school year. To help bridge the gap, district trustees threatened to cut the entire sports budget of $465,000, then eventually decided to slash it by $265,000still a huge loss for Unified's two high schools, Encinal and Alameda.
In response, an emergency residential tax was put to vote in early June, and student-athletes and their parents went to work stumping for its passage. They constructed signs, developed a Web site with a student-produced YouTube commercial, and directly appealed to residents through phone calls. Initial results showed the vote failed by about 100 ballots. Almost a month later, however, absentee and provisional ballots pushed the total to just over the two-thirds majority needed to pass.
"It's a big relief," says Encinal Athletic Director Kevin Gorham. "All the hard work we put in paid off in the end. We're going to be able to maintain our high school sports."
Now Gorham is focusing on a strategy so there is no repeat of the situation down the road. "This is a call to athletic directors that we need to push for more fiscal responsibility," he says. "We can't ask the public to bail us out again in four years. If you look at the state of this country's economy right now, to be able to pass a parcel tax says a lot about what our programs mean to the community, and we will now watch every penny and be more financially responsible."
High Gas Prices: One answer to gas price hikes is to travel less, and Mississippi high school teams will take that approach during the 2008-09 school year. This summer, the Mississippi High School Activities Association (MHSAA) announced it will cut game schedules by 10 percent in all sports except football.
"Many of our school districts had a difficult time adjusting their budgets with the increase in fuel prices this past year, and next year will only be worse," says Dr. Ennis Proctor, Executive Director of the MHSAA. "We had a statewide meeting with our superintendents about how to approach the gasoline issue, and this was one area where we, as state leaders, could help out.
"Ten percent isn't really a big reduction for each sport, but spread across 20 sports, it adds up to significant savings," Proctor continues. "From 30 basketball and baseball games, we're going down to 27that's still an awful lot of games. We've had very few complaints."
The Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association (TSSAA) is helping out its member high schools by reconfiguring into three classifications and 16 geographically based districts in football, basketball, baseball, softball, and volleyball in an attempt to keep travel to a minimum for the 2009-10 school year. "When you look at the economy, cost of gas, every school I know is in a budget crunch," a TSSAA Board of Control member told the Knoxville News Sentinel. "We need to play as close to home as possible, and this plan does that."
Other high schools around the country have started competing against the same school in multiple sports on the same day so that teams can travel together. And several districts have eliminated non-conference play to keep team buses from traveling out of the immediate area. "I'm sure we'll see more doubleheaders in baseball and softball, too," Proctor says. "There are many different ways we can all save, we just have to find them."
Asking For Help: What was originally a dire situation for Brainerd (Minn.) High Schoola failed levy referendum that forced the high school to impose dramatically higher pay-to-play feesturned into a shining example of community support and cooperation. After the referendum failed, a group of parents and Brainerd Athletic Director Todd Selk got together and started a foundation to aid families that can't pay the higher fees.
Begun in December, the foundation has raised over half a million dollars by simply asking community members who can afford it to open their wallets. "The interesting thing about these donations is that the largest single gift was only $15,000," Selk says. "There were over 800 individual donations, but there was no one big hitter. This was truly a community-wide effort."
The foundation is set up to work much like a needs-based college financial aid package. "If a family makes X amount of money and the fee is $300 per sport, the family can get maybe $150 of it offset by the foundation," Selk explains. "We have a tremendous history of athletics here, and the community said, 'We're not ready to let it go. Let's solve this problem together.'"