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School sports programs fight to stay alive in struggling economy

Forget the wins, which hit 300 in February. Forget the four New York state public school titles in eight years. Of all the statistics Mount Vernon (N.Y.) boys' basketball coach Bob Cimmino keeps, he cherishes one the most. He's 82-for-85. In his time as the Knights' varsity coach, all but three of his players have gone on to college. Cimmino, a social studies teacher who counts Chicago Bulls star Ben Gordon as a program alum, considers sports a critical part of any high school's curriculum.

The Mount Vernon school board disagrees. Two weeks ago, the board eliminated funding for high school sports after a school budget tax levy failed for a second time, forcing the district to draft a $187.4 million austerity budget that also required the elimination of 115 jobs -- 51 of them teaching positions. The decision left Cimmino, Knights football coach Ric Wright and the rest of Mount Vernon's coaches scrambling to raise the $950,000 required to fund the athletic program for the 2008-09 school year. If they can't raise at least $300,000 by August, the coaches said, Mount Vernon's fields and courts could be empty for a long time. Cimmino, a Mount Vernon native, doesn't want to imagine that possibility. "It'll be a devastating thing," he said.

More than 3,000 miles away in Alameda, Calif., coaches and athletes at Alameda and Encinal high schools received the same dire news in March. California's budget crunch had forced the Alameda school district to cut sports, music programs and advanced placement classes to the bone. But students at both high schools -- aware that the school district receives funding based on attendance -- demonstrated their might by walking out of class en masse. The attention garnered by the walkout probably saved the sports program; last month, a $120 parcel tax passed by the slimmest of margins and saved funding for sports.

The situations in Mount Vernon and Alameda aren't isolated. Throughout the country, inflation, rising gas prices and a stagnant economy have forced school districts to rethink how they fund sports. Some have instituted or raised "user fees" that charge parents for their children to play. Some, such as Mount Vernon, have ordered schools to seek private funding. Meanwhile, others have started down a slippery slope of small cuts that can only lead to more drastic ones. If recent events are any indication, school-sponsored sports may soon be only a memory.

"The way everything is going, it could be a completely different landscape in a few years," said Jay Stewart, the athletic director at Florida's St. Lucie County. "High school athletics are in danger."

Last month, Stewart banned his football coaches from traveling more than 75 miles to an away game. He also said that after this year's contracts expire, schools must slice their regular-season football schedules to nine games. Other sports already had cut their seasons, but the idea of football cutting its schedule would have seemed heretical a few years ago. Stewart worries that soon, schools in Florida will have to seriously consider cutting junior varsity sports. Without that feeder system, Stewart said, varsity sports could find themselves on the chopping block as well.

Florida's troubles aren't difficult to trace. High gas prices have forced would-be tourists to stay home. Without those tourists, the state doesn't collect as much sales-tax revenue (Florida has no state income tax). With less revenue, the state has less available to give to school districts. Despite that, districts still must adhere to a state constitution amendment, passed by voters in 2003, that limits class size. With most of the money earmarked for the classroom, districts have struggled to pay for helmets, for volleyball nets or for gas to fill buses for away game trips. "It's the perfect storm," Stewart said. "It's the class-size amendment. It's the reduction in funding. It's the bad economy. All that hit at the same time."

Wright, the Mount Vernon football coach, shudders to think about what might happen if he can't raise enough money for his team to play this season. "Football really is the key to everyone else playing," Wright said. "If football doesn't play, nobody plays." And if no one plays, Wright isn't sure what's left for those students to do after school. "It's a tough town," Wright said. "Sports are the alternative."

Mount Vernon is a four-square-mile city in Westchester County bordered by the Bronx to the south, Yonkers to the west and New Rochelle to the east. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Mount Vernon is, economically speaking, an average New York town. The median household income is $41,128, while the state average is $43,393. In Mount Vernon, 14.2 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, compared to 14.6 percent throughout the state. According to the FBI, however, Mount Vernon has a higher violent-crime rate than its neighbors. In 2005, the FBI counted 431.9 robberies per 100,000 people in Mount Vernon compared to 199.2 per 100,000 in the New York City metro area. Aggravated assaults (329.8 to 239.8) and gun assaults (54 to 17.6) also were more frequent in Mount Vernon than in New York City.

Mount Vernon Mayor Clinton Young knows the statistics. He also knows from experience how to avoid becoming one. Young's prowess on the track and in the classroom at Mount Vernon High helped pay his way to Morehouse College. Young, who has no say in how the school district allocates its funds, believes his office now must pick up the slack. He worries that if the athletic department can't raise the money, he'll have to pump more money into the police department and youth services. "These kind of programs teach these kids character," Young said. "They teach them to have self respect. And, just very bluntly, if we don't have sports, some of these kids are not going to school."

So to avoid throwing a significant portion of the town's high school population onto the street at 3:10 every afternoon, Young has launched the Save Our Sports program to help solicit private donations. Last month, the Bulls' Gordon traveled to Mount Vernon on a day's notice to help drum up support for the program. "I don't know where I'd be," Gordon said at a press conference to introduce the program, "without the support created by the Mount Vernon sports program... It kept us all off the streets."

In Grand Meadow, Minn., Grand Meadow High assistant wrestling coach Jim Richardson shares Young's belief that money not spent on sports eventually will be spent on law enforcement. Richardson has a unique perspective; he's also Grand Meadow's police chief. "I'd rather deal with them on the field or in the gym," Richardson said, "than at 2 a.m. in a cornfield." Recent budget cuts forced Grand Meadow to eliminate baseball, softball and golf. Richardson worries the cuts eventually will cost more than they save. "In America, it's all about investing," he said. "What do you want to invest in?"

Cutting sports also can turn a school into a ghost town. In March, California's Alameda Unified School District faced a mass exodus of athletes and honor students to other schools when the district decided to chop funding for sports and advanced placement classes. So the students decided to stage a mass exodus of their own to prove how valuable those programs were.

At California's Encinal High, which produced Willie Stargell, Dontrelle Willis and Jimmy Rollins, quarterback/safety/right fielder Jonathan Brown joined other student leaders in organizing a peaceful walkout that brought the district's two high schools to their knees for a day. Brown, the son of a police captain who is drawing football interest from Colorado and the Air Force Academy, said the students had to show the community how much the programs meant.

"We waited for everybody to get to school," Brown said. "At second period, everybody walked to the front of the school. A few people had bullhorns, saying we were going to walk all the way to the administrative offices to see the superintendent. That's on the other side of town, so it was a long walk."

Superintendent Ardella Dailey met with the students and explained that for the district to fund the programs, voters would have to pass Measure H, a $120 tax hike paid by each property owner. For the next two months, students rallied to support the measure, but when the polls closed June 3, it appeared the measure had fallen just short of the two-thirds majority needed to pass it. But over the next few days, as the absentee ballots came in, the pendulum swung. The measure passed by 34 votes.

"Luckily it did," Brown said. "Because if it didn't pass, a lot of people were going to be leaving."

As money grows tighter for taxpayers across the nation, levies such as Measure H aren't going to save sports funding everywhere. To make matters worse, some districts have placed athletics on the sacrificial altar so many times in order to ram through a tax increase or to squeeze out additional funding, voters have begun to consider it an empty threat.

School sports turned into political football earlier this year in Manchester, N.H. In April, athletic director Dave Gosselin warned that the district might not be able to find funding for athletics in the $140 million budget proposed by Mayor Frank Guinta. The mayor argued that if the district used the money more efficiently, it could afford to fund sports. In an interview with the Union-Leader, one of Guinta's predecessors, a veteran of an earlier budget crunch, agreed.

"This is an exercise designed to whip the parents into a frenzy," former mayor Raymond Wiezorek told the paper. "It wouldn't occur to them to ever take a good look to see if there's another way to do things that might cost a little less. ... [Government] never makes the adjustments that a private business has to make to survive. In government, how do I survive? I send people a larger tax bill. I don't ever have to worry about changing anything."

In May, Manchester's school board approved a budget that would continue to fund athletics. But without additional tax dollars, what is a cash-strapped district to do? Bob Kanaby, the director of the National Federation of High School Associations, said schools in nearly 40 states charge students to play sports.

As the economy has faltered, those user fees have risen in many districts. Last September, The Boston Globe reported that 27 schools in metro Boston charged students to play sports. Fees ranged from $75 per sport at North Middlesex Regional in Townsend, Mass., to $250 a sport with a $1,000 per family cap at Stoneham High, where a new garbage collection fee -- on top of the user fees -- saved sports in 2007. In Brainerd, Minn., parents and coaches formed a foundation to fund Brainerd High's sports programs after the district eliminated funding. In spite of their efforts, parents will have to fork over $380 a child in activity fees this school year. In Lakeville, Minn., a Twin Cities suburb, a failed tax levy forced a mid-year activity-fee hike from $90 to $230. Lakeville North High athletic director Byron Olson said the increase didn't affect team sports this past spring, but it did curb participation in individual sports such as track and tennis.

Olson worries that districts are pricing low-income families out of sports. Unlike other schools that charge user fees, Lakeville North has yet to raise enough money to create a fund that would allow poor students to have their fees waived. Olson fears the disparity will make an already obvious class system even worse. He also worries that some students may never try new sports because their parents aren't willing to spend the money.

"We're going to lose some students because they can't afford it," Olson said. "It goes against everything that we stand for."

User fees also introduce other issues. For instance, parents grow more frustrated when their child sits the bench. Didn't they pay so she could play? Also, coaches and school athletic directors turn into glorified accounts receivable clerks. They must track down every check and manage mountains of extra paperwork.

For these reasons, schools in much of the country have fought user fees, either by raising money to cover shortfalls or by convincing local governments to provide enough to keep them running. But when the money evaporates, some schools have no choice. The coaches at Mount Vernon in New York never wanted their athletes to have to pay. Now, they must consider the possibility. "It's on the table," Cimmino said.

The surest way to keep school sports afloat is to raise money that can directly fund athletic programs. Anyone who has ever eaten at a crab boil or had their car washed by a high school softball team knows most high school coaches are master fundraisers. But can they raise six- and seven-figure sums if they must forge ahead without public funding?

Wright, the Mount Vernon football coach, hopes he can. He has secured a $25,000 donation from filmmaker Jeff Cooney, a former Mount Vernon resident who previously had spent that amount every year to provide academic coaches for the football team through the National Football Foundation's Play it Smart program. The academic coaches have volunteered to work for free this year so Cooney could repurpose his donation.

Still, Wright knows he needs more than a few big donors. He'll take anything he can get to help Mount Vernon's teams play this year. He suggests that if 5,000 people gave up one night at the theater, the school could fund the entire sports program into the winter. Raising money for this year is the first challenge. Keeping the programs funded is another story entirely.

In Texas, where education funding has not risen with the level of inflation for three years, Plano athletic director Gerald Brence runs what might be as close to a recession-proof program as possible. Brence hopes that in a few years, his department can take in enough revenue in ticket sales to fund itself. He said that if home football games for his district's three high schools can draw between 8,000 and 10,000 fans, the district should come close to breaking even. That way, he said, the district could continue to provide the necessities -- fields, equipment, transportation, officials -- while leaving any extras to school booster clubs. "If they want to run through a giant, inflatable helmet," Brence said, "that's something the booster club would have to provide."

Of course, not all communities are as affluent or sports-crazy as Plano. In other areas, districts may have to raise private funds for endowments or find more creative ways to get public funding. One potential solution is a tax-credit program. At Red Rock High in Sedona, Ariz., parents must pay a participation fee ($400 per family maximum) for their children to play sports. But those who pay the fee are eligible to receive a credit on their state income tax return. So they pay the same tax bill they normally would, but those dollars get earmarked for a program those taxpayers consider vital to their community.

At Mount Vernon, coaches and civic leaders will examine every option. The coaches already have offered to work for free, and they'll spend most of their free time fundraising to save the athletic program. Though the odds are against them, Cimmino, Wright and the other Mount Vernon coaches believe they can beat the buzzer and play this season.

"I promise," Cimmino said, "I'll have a big smile on my face in August watching coach Ric yell at his players."

For information about Mount Vernon's Save Our Sports program, call (914) 665-2351.

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