Tuesday August 4th, 2009

Norm Brown sold cookie dough. He sought donations for a 5K run fundraiser. He helped organize a football camp. Brown, the football coach at Independence High in San Jose, Calif., poured his energy this spring into raising money to save the athletic program for the East Side Union school district's 11 high schools. So on June 25, when the district's board of trustees reversed an earlier decision to eliminate the district's $1.8 million athletic budget, Brown should have been celebrating. Instead, the night was bittersweet.

Because with the passage of the budget that saved sports, Brown lost his teaching job.

Brown's physical education job was one of 80 teaching positions axed as East Side Union struggled to cope with a deficit created by a multibillion-dollar shortfall in the state budget. The cuts eliminated the jobs of six other P.E. teachers, 13 English teachers, 12 math teachers, 11 science teachers, 10 social studies teachers and 28 others. California's state budget crisis has forced its districts to make difficult choices between auxiliary programs (athletics, music, the arts, etc.) and core programs, but as the recession's teeth sink deeper into state budgets across the country, more districts will face similar choices. STAPLES: Recession widening gap between college's haves, have-nots

Even in places where athletics budgets only need trimming, districts and state associations face serious issues. The subject of ballot initiatives, school board meetings, and even a lawsuit in federal court, athletic budgets are front and center like never before. In some districts, pay-for-play costs continue to rise as parents are being asked to foot more of the bill for high school sports. That includes the East Side Union district, where parents have been asked to make a $200 per athlete donation to help defray costs.

In some parts of the country, district leaders have tossed out cutting athletics as a political football to mobilize parents into approving tax increases -- even though they have no intention of making the cuts. That wasn't the case in California's East Side Union district. Brown and board member Eddie Garcia said the threat was real, and if the community hadn't acted, the program would have been vaporized.

Brown has made his choice. He plans to keep coaching even if Independence administrators fail in their efforts to get him back on the payroll. As of last week, they had guaranteed Brown one period a day. He has applied for unemployment benefits, but he hopes he doesn't need to collect. "I'm not giving up on the kids," Brown said. "I've decided to commit to [them]."

Brown and his seven brothers and sisters are products of the East Side Union district. Brown starred for Coach Ed Buller at Oak Grove High in the '80s. After graduation, he played linebacker at San Jose State. He knocked around the World League of American Football (NFL Europe's precursor) and the Arena Football League before coming back to California to teach and coach. Brown said his experience at Oak Grove inspired him to become a teacher, and he said he doesn't want future generations of East Side Union students to miss out on playing sports. "The extra helps the whole," said Brown, who said he receives a $4,000-a-year football coaching stipend that he splits with some assistants. "Sports play an integral part in the value of an education."

About a month after Brown's 76ers finished their season, East Side Union superintendent Bob Nunez proposed eliminating the district's athletic program to help balance the budget. Coaches, parents and athletes raised about $200,000 with the hope of funding athletics, but athletics remained in danger until April, when Garcia -- a former high school basketball coach who wasn't a board member when the cut was proposed ---held a town hall meeting to brainstorm solutions. Because the district receives most of its funding based on average daily attendance (about $6,400 a year per student), Garcia argued that the athletic budget was less than one percent of the total budget and that if even a small fraction of the district's estimated 6,300 high school athletes transferred out, the district would lose more than it had hoped to save. Garcia's fellow board members listened, and in late June the board approved a budget that would give athletics a one-time allotment of $800,000 from a court settlement. The rest of the money would come from the participant donations.

Garcia knows the settlement money offers a temporary fix. To fund sports next year, district voters probably will have to pass a parcel tax. Last year, voters in nearby Alameda, Calif., passed a similar tax after the local school district threatened to cut athletics, arts programs and Advanced Placement classes. Prior to the vote, students walked out en masse to protest the cuts. Garcia said he understands the consequences if the tax vote fails.

For starters, it would mean raising a lot of money. Last year, voters in Mount Vernon, N.Y., twice voted down the school district budget, forcing the district to adopt an austerity budget that included no funding for sports. Coaches, athletes, parents and community leaders rallied and raised almost $1 million. Donations included a $100,000 check from actor Denzel Washington, who grew up in Mount Vernon.

The fight for high school athletic funding hasn't been limited to school board meetings and polling places. It also has spilled into federal court. In April, the Florida High School Athletic Association's board voted to cut schedules in all sports except football and competitive cheerleading by 20 percent. A group of parents then filed suit in federal court in Jacksonville, Fla., claiming the FHSAA had violated Title IX by taking away more competition opportunities for girls because football's large roster size meant the cuts would affect a larger percentage of female athletes. Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a four-time Olympic medalist in swimming and a law professor at the Florida Coastal School of Law, represented the parents.

The FHSAA hired its own attorney to re-examine the issue, but the U.S. Department of Justice dealt the FHSAA a serious blow when it filed an amicus brief on behalf of the parents. With little hope of prevailing in court, the board voted unanimously on July 15 to rescind the cuts. "There's an old saying that says the juice is not worth the squeeze," FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing said. "We don't want to save on the officials, buses, ticket-takers and then turn around and spend it in court."

Hogshead-Makar left the emergency meeting pleased with the outcome but disappointed with the attitudes of FHSAA leaders. She said they only changed their minds because of pending litigation and not because the cuts had broken the law. She worried that a similar attitude in other states could result in more Title IX lawsuits. "Having that view of the law out there is going to make litigation more likely in the future," she said.

In Florida all of the state's 67 counties will have to decide individually what they will cut to balance their budgets. "Now," Gulf County superintendent Tim Wilder said, "the real inequity will begin." Wilder argued that wealthier counties would play full schedules, while poorer ones would cut to the bone. That would affect state championships and could prompt parents to move their children.

FHSAA leaders said they would spend the school year researching cost-cutting measures that would not violate Title IX. That could prove tricky, board president Greg Zornes said, because at many schools, football pays for girls and boys sports. "To me, cutting football was cutting revenue in girls' sports as well as boys'," Zornes said.

No matter the state or the venue, the recession has forced public school officials to make increasingly difficult choices in funding school athletics. The Florida case could reverberate throughout the country as school boards look for ways to trim costs. Meanwhile, more districts could find themselves in the same position as California's East Side Union district.

In San Jose, Brown, the Independence football coach, still thinks district leaders chose wisely when they saved sports, even though the choice may have cost Brown his teaching job. He'll coach his team this year, and he still hopes he'll get a chance to teach in the classroom and on the field. "I'm praying every day," Brown said.

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