Wednesday October 8th, 2008

Before the final vote in June on the local school district budget, parents in Wantagh, N.Y., didn't worry. They'd seen voters strike down preliminary budgets before only to approve the budget at the 11th hour. Most figured this year's vote would unfold the same way. "We all just thought it would pass," said Don Desroches, a parent with two children in the school system.

This time, the budget didn't pass. The district, forced to adopt an austerity budget, slashed school athletics and other extracurricular activities as part of an effort to cut $1.5 million in expenses. Parents were told that if they wanted a full slate of sports, clubs and music programs, they'd have to raise $650,000 themselves.

Think the situation at Wantagh sounds extreme? It isn't. As the economy nosedives and voters become increasingly frustrated with higher taxes and inefficient spending by school officials, more school districts may look to parents and private businesses to fund athletics.

At Wantagh, Desroches and several dozen parents formed Save Our Students, a grassroots organization that so far has raised $550,000. A similar scenario played out in July in Mount Vernon, N.Y., coaches, athletes, parents, school and city officials have raised $574,000 with an ultimate goal of $900,000. Mount Vernon school district spokeswoman Desiree Grand said Tuesday that the fundraising has covered fall sports and most of the winter sports program. Now, fundraisers have turned their attention to spring sports.

In other districts, athletes and coaches have managed to convince voters to approve higher taxes to fund school sports by only the slimmest of margins. In Alameda, Calif., students at Alameda and Encinal high schools staged a walkout last spring to protest their school district's decision to cut sports, music programs and advanced placement classes. The walkout was intended to show what the school population might look like if the affected students went elsewhere, which is what they would have done had the district cut the programs. After the walkout, a referendum for a $120 parcel tax hike passed by 34 votes.

Still, with every new budget vote comes another challenge. In many districts, voters grow weary of passing tax hike after tax hike to support schools. Some view a vote against a school budget as a demand for more accountability. In Minnesota, school sports have become an increasingly thorny issue. Some districts have instituted or raised user fees that require parents to pay for their children to play sports. At Prior Lake High, parents must pay $155 for a child to play football, $165 for basketball and $240 for hockey -- with a $600 per family maximum.

With a referendum on a tax levy to fund the school budget looming, teaching positions, busing and school sports will be cut further if the levy doesn't pass, Prior Lake-Savage Area School District Superintendent Sue Ann Gruver wrote last week in an op-ed column published in the Savage Pacer. Though sports pale in comparison to the staffing and class-size issues facing the district, parents of athletes likely will consider them when casting ballots. "Some may perceive the discussion of these consequences as a threat," Gruver wrote. "However, the reality is that after three years of budget reductions, if the levy is not renewed there is no other way to find the kind of money needed to continue to operate our schools the way we have in the past."

Back in Wantagh, parents hope to raise another $100,000 to secure extracurricular programs for the remainder of the school year. After that, they'll work to ensure sports remains part of the budget next year. No one in Wantagh or in Mount Vernon is certain if such funds could be raised a second consecutive year, so the only hope for school sports may be convincing voters to pass the budget.

"Hopefully," Desroches said, "a lot more people will become a lot more educated about the process."

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