ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Saving extracurriculars with ‘pay-to-play’ fees
by Terri McHugh
Terri McHugh is community relations director for School District 54 in Schaumburg, Illinois.
It’s fall. Cross country teams are running a course through town. Football players are tossing the pigskin. Volleyball teams are working on the bump, set and spike.
But can every student in the district afford to play? Are there students sitting out this season because their families can’t afford the athletic fees?
And what can school board members do to balance the goals of fiscal responsibility with student participation in extracurricular activities?
As school boards debate fees, they often discuss the importance of extracurricular activities.
The National Center for Education Statistics examined the relationship between extracurricular participation and student engagement in school using data from public high school seniors in a 1992 National Education Longitudinal Study. Although the analysis couldn’t ascertain definitively whether participation in extracurricular activities leads to increased success at school, the data did show that students who participated in extracurricular activities had better attendance, were more likely to have a GPA of 3.0 or greater and were more likely to expect to earn a bachelor’s degree.
In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 60 minutes daily of physical activity for students ages 6 to 17. The Institute of Medicine’s report Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance also recommends that schools provide a significant portion of a student’s physical activity minutes.
Extracurricular sports, in addition to physical education classes, help meet those goals.
However, school boards also face uncertainty over state funding, property tax appeals and the rising costs of educating today’s students. How can they continue to provide extracurricular activities for all students and balance the budget at the same time?
“You’re never going to balance your budget with the fees you charge for activities or registration,” said Jeff King, chief operations officer for School District U-46 in Elgin. The U-46 budget is more than $400 million; fees account for only about $2.5 million in revenue.
This year the U-46 school board voted to increase the fees for football — the most expensive sport in the district — by $50, to $200. The fee for other sports will remain at $150. King said the only individuals who spoke against the increase were some of the football coaches.
In response, he provided them with information that showed parents paid up to $325 to enroll their children in the youth feeder football programs before the students entered high school, and some of those fees didn’t include equipment. For example, the South Elgin youth football league charges $325 for tackle football, leaving parents with still needing to purchase a practice jersey and pants, pads for the pants, a cup and a mouthpiece.
U-46 has looked at ways to cut costs in the district instead of just boosting extracurricular fees. Last year it consolidated the high school transportation program from 1,271 bus stops to 271 by having high school students walk up to a mile to a local elementary school or park. With state funding for transportation declining, the district’s transportation fund is expected to have a deficit again this year.
King said the district may implement a similar program with middle school bus stops next year.
This summer, the district also updated its routing software with a program that will monitor when buses are idling. King predicts a large savings in fuel costs — up to 10 percent — will be realized by monitoring drivers and enforcing more efficient fuel usage.
Transportation is a factor in athletic costs as well, as teams travel to other schools for games. By making these changes to the transportation program, U-46 may not have to charge for transporting athletes home after practices or to competitions — costs that might make participation even more prohibitive.
Even with the $50 increase, the football fees collected do not even cover the cost of reconditioning helmets and shoulder pads each year, King said. In addition, U-46 waives athletics fees for students who qualify for the free lunch program, or about 50 percent of the district’s students. Although this is not state law, it is U-46 board policy. In addition, the district had about $500,000 in uncollected fees this year.
“It’s complicated,” King said. “Should the taxpayer be subsidizing a student who wants to play football? On the other hand, should I tell the free lunch student he can’t play? We are reallocating some resources for those who don’t have them.”
King recommended that school boards survey their citizens or bring the discussion to a citizen group. He plans to pursue one or both of those options the next time U-46 considers a fee increase. Although the district reviews fees every year, the board hasn’t increased them each year.
Something has to give
The Minooka High School District 111 board of education debated extracurricular fees this spring. Currently, the 2,500 students at the two Minooka campuses do not pay a fee for athletics or other extracurricular activities. However, the district faced a roughly $3.2 million deficit for 2012-13 and something needed to change.
“Our revenue is largely based on property taxes,” said Todd Drafall, district business manager. “We had a significant drop in revenue due to a drop in EAV (equalized assessed valuation).”
The board voted not to implement a fee for 2012-13, but looked at other ways to reduce expenditures.
Minooka did raise its registration fee by $20 to $210. The board approved cuts to capital expenditures, reduced some administrative positions, and made adjustments in purchased services and supplies. In addition, the administration office moved from a leased storefront into one of the district’s schools.
These adjustments reduced the district’s deficit by $2.2 million without cutting any certified staff or adding a fee for extracurricular activities.
“The finance committee, which includes board members, had some concerns about reducing students’ options to be a part of athletics and activities,” Drafall said. “The board is very concerned about families’ ability to pay for services and programs. They have tried to keep the education costs down for the families at these schools. Our goal is to minimize impact to classroom and students as much as possible.”
Minooka’s budget now is estimated to end with a $1 million deficit for 2012-13, but Drafall said the deficit would be covered with district reserves for the next two years. The option to implement athletic fees will come up again as the board reviews fees every year.
Although Minooka doesn’t have a participation fee, many families still spend money on summer sports camps, equipment and other costs related to sports participation.
Successful athletic programs also can prove costly. In addition to the costs for coaches and equipment, Minooka has had many teams advance to post-season state competitions in the past few years. At that point, the district also covers the cost for travel and hotel accommodations.
Although Minooka is not charging a fee for now, Drafall said public sentiment is that if the district is ever in a position of cutting extracurricular programs or charging a fee, that it should charge the fee.
If the fee should ever become necessary, he said he would work with the booster club or other sponsors to help cover the costs for families that cannot afford the fee. In Minooka, 10 percent of families qualify for the free lunch program, the usual determinant for a family’s ability to pay.
“Any time you charge a fee you create a barrier,” he said. “Our board tries to keep those barriers as low as possible.”
The board at Dixon Unit School District 170 tried a different tactic. The Student Worker Assistance Program (SWAP) allows any student, regardless of financial need, to work for the district in the summer in order to pay for the student’s athletic fee for the upcoming seasons.
“We knew some of our parents were struggling with paying the fees, especially the athletic fees which are not covered under the federal guidelines of free and reduced lunch,” said Margo Empen, assistant superintendent.
Dixon High School charges $125 for the first sport and $75 for each additional sport, with a family cap of $300.
SWAP was the idea of Empen and Laura Sward, a student services secretary at Reagan Middle School. The idea emerged as they were discussing how to help families in need after a plant in the area closed, putting many families on unemployment. The number of students receiving free and reduced lunch rose to nearly 50 percent.
“We have to be able to meet the needs of our families,” Sward said. “It’s hard enough being a parent, but to be a parent in these economic times and give our children what they need is very hard. Parents, what are you going to do — pay the electric bill or pay for Danny to go to football?”
This summer, 167 students worked for the district at $8 an hour in various maintenance, custodial and summer school jobs. A student who only plays one sport can earn his or her fee in fewer than 16 hours. Dixon High School has about 800 students.
Each spring, students who will be in high school the following year receive a letter inviting them to participate in SWAP. (A copy of the letter and application can be found online at http ://www.dixonschools.org/index. php/students/swap-information.) The application includes a contract which spells out expectations for the students and must be signed by the student and a parent.
More than one-third of students who play sports participate in SWAP. High school students can also work to pay the cost of sports for a middle school sibling. Middle school students, who must pay $50 to participate in a sport at school, aren’t eligible for the SWAP program.
Students are assigned to a variety of jobs including painting, moving classrooms, doing custodial or light maintenance work, or working in summer school programs. Because they are employees of the district, the students are covered under the district’s workman’s comp insurance but do not receive benefits.
“One of our goals is that we place a lot of eighth-graders into positions at the high school to give them a really good connection before they start high school,” Empen said.
Sward shared a story of one freshman who qualifies for special education services and is a gifted athlete. She worked in the high school office this past summer so she will know her way around the school and meet staff members before the first day of school.
Empen and Sward said they have received only positive feedback about the program.
“One of the big things we’re hearing from the state is not only academically how can we get kids college- and career-ready, but also on the social/emotional level,” Empen said. “We talk to the SWAP kids about their clothing and cell phone usage. We have a two-strikes-and-you’re-out policy. After the second warning, the athletic fee becomes the responsibility of the parent.”
Although SWAP was started to help offset the costs of athletic fees, it has produced other benefits as well:
• Parents are using the SWAP program to teach their children to be responsible by having them pay to participate in sports.
• Students have listed Empen and Sward as references when they apply for other jobs.
• Students are taking pride and ownership in their schools because they are helping prepare the schools for the next school year or helping prepare younger students academically.
Although the district is now collecting fewer athletic fees, it is saving money on other expenditures. For example, the district used to hire college students each summer for painting, general custodial and maintenance work. That cost has been eliminated.
“We could not have hired one individual for an entire year with full-time benefits for the cost of this program,” Sward said.
The students never receive money. Rather the money is transferred from the Operations and Maintenance Fund to the Education Fund, where athletic fees are normally deposited. The program only covers the cost of the participation fee. Summer camps and other costs are still absorbed by parents, student fundraisers or the booster club.
Empen and Sward are willing to share the details behind the Student Worker Assistance Program with other interested districts.
“It’s immeasurable in terms of what this program has done for our community,” Empen said. “I think this is something we would offer even if only 1 percent of our students qualified for free lunch. The college and career readiness, the social/emotional benefit, the pride in their school and the pride in the work they’ve done — that’s immeasurable.
“We’re teaching kids about life and good work ethics.”
And that would seem to be the underlying goal of all extracurricular activities.
Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance, 2005
National Center for Education Statistics, “Extracurricular Participation and Student Engagement,” June 1995, http://nces.ed.gov/pubs95/web/95741.asp
A coach’s perspective
by Christina Nevitt
Christina Nevitt teaches journalism and photography and is cheerleading coach at North Star High School in Lincoln, Nebraska. She is the daughter of Journal editor Linda Dawson.
Students can choose from a long list of after-school activities these days: sports, theater, music, church groups, volunteer work, jobs … the list is endless. A job comes with pay, but the rest come at a cost. For those that are school-related, it is becoming increasingly more difficult for districts to figure out a way to foot the bill.
Some districts have chosen a “pay-to-play” plan for students interested in participating in athletics at school in order to help fill the money crunch. That approach may solve part of the money issue, but what happens to students who can’t afford to play? What happens to their opportunity?
When I first heard about “pay-to-play” at the high school level, I had mixed emotions. As a teacher and cheerleading coach at my high school, I know times are tough for schools where funding is concerned, but what about my students who don’t qualify for free/reduced lunch, but their families struggle financially? In a “pay-to-play” situation, these kids get left out. They can’t get assistance, because they aren’t bad off enough, but they aren’t well off enough to pay the fee to participate.
I was active in high school. I ran cross-country in the fall, track in the spring, and was a cheerleader throughout. I also participated in theater and was a member of our swing choir. Every year there was a cost for it all. I needed new running shoes for cross country, new spikes for track, a new dress for swing choir, a costume for the musical, and cheerleading … well that topped them all!
My parents worked hard to make sure I could do all of these things, but it was expensive. If I would have had to pay-to-play my sports on top of purchasing all the things I needed to participate, I am not sure I would have been able to do it all.
Dani Molifua is one of my cheer parents. She disagrees with “pay-to-play.”
“We are a family of six who has always struggled financially. [Pay-to-play] may require a family to have to pick and choose which child (if any) can play and what they can play,” said Molifua. “Kids need the opportunity to explore their likes and dislikes to further develop and decide what they want to do with their lives. Playing sports and being involved in other school activities has required that [my kids] maintain good grades and adhere to rules that they might not otherwise have adhered to if not for playing ball.”
Both of Molifua’s older sons went to college on scholarships to play football. If they had been required to pay, they might not have been able to play, which means they would not have been offered a scholarship, and ultimately may not have had the opportunity to go to college at all.
Are “pay-to-play” districts creating a disservice to their students who can’t afford to pay, but are also ineligible for assistance? What if fundraising isn’t an option? How can we make sure to involve those students who would benefit so much from organized sports/activities?
A right or easy answer to this debate doesn’t exist. Districts must do what is best financially for the district and their students. “Pay-to-play” should be revisited every year, and districts should have a plan in place for students who fall through the “can’t-afford-to-pay-but-don’t-qualify-for-assistance crack.”
As a teacher, coach and parent, however, I will continue to try to make sure I can give them every possible opportunity to participate in what they are passionate about … whether it’s football, baseball, cheerleading, theater, music or even the ping-pong club.
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