The impact of an Ohio school district's decision to cut sports

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On Aug. 28, football players didn't come to school in their jerseys. Cheerleaders didn't wear their uniforms. The band didn't march, and the team didn't play. Exactly one hour after the final bell rang, the doors were locked. "Every day feels like a Tuesday," said Mike Mayers, the senior who thought he would start at quarterback this season. "Fridays are the days that everybody realizes things aren't the same."

Mayers no longer has a team because the South-Western City School Board (the district includes four high schools: Central Crossing, Grove City, Franklin Heights and Westland) took the unprecedented step of canceling all extra-curricular activities after voters failed to pass an operating levy Aug. 4. Now, the four high schools in Ohio's sixth-largest school district have no sports, no bands, no drama productions and no student council.

Friday doesn't matter anymore in the South-Western district, but Tuesday, Nov. 3, does. On that day district voters will go to the polls a fourth time to decide whether the district will receive the additional property tax dollars the school board insists it needs to bring back sports, clubs and busing for high school students.

The issue has turned neighbor against neighbor and caused shouting matches at school board meetings and on street corners. Those who oppose the levy argue that the district should find a more efficient way to spend the money it already has instead of asking for more tax dollars. The anti-levy crusaders appear to be the majority, evidenced by the fact that the levy already has been voted down three times. Those who support the levy warn that if the district doesn't offer a full program that includes a quality education and extra-curricular activities, parents will leave for another district that does. They also fear that another no vote will force the school board to slice into academic programs, which could trigger a mass exodus. That, they argue, would further erode the tax base and rob South-Western of many of its brightest students. To the pro-levy side, the Nov. 3 vote is nothing short of a referendum on the future of the community.

"This community is going to die," Grove City High football coach Matt Jordan said. "That's the big fear."

The situation in South-Western is extreme, but it isn't unusual. Across the nation, school districts are wrestling with a fundamental question. When money is tight, should taxpayers be funding high school sports? In Mount Vernon, N.Y., students, parents, coaches, teachers and community leaders raised nearly $1 million to fund the school district's sports program for the 2008-09 school year after voters twice declined to pass the district budget and forced the district into austerity mode. The budget was passed -- with funding for athletics -- for the current school year. In the East Side Union district in San Jose, Calif., sports were on the chopping block until this summer, when district officials reached an 11th-hour compromise to fund sports that included a $200 "donation" from each athlete.

What's happening at South-Western could happen almost anywhere in America, because South-Western could be almost anywhere in America. Its 127 square miles include rural areas with farms and rolling hills, tree-lined suburbs such as Grove City and urban areas within the Columbus city limits. According to district records, 52 percent of the district's 21,000 students receive either free or reduced lunch. South-Western also serves a large portion of the Columbus area's growing Somali population. That economic disparity was the reason the school board did not allow the schools to charge a participation fee to fund athletics this year. Board members worried that the district's lower-income students would be denied opportunities, so they elected to deny athletics to everyone.

On a Chamber of Commerce evening last week, the football field at Central Crossing High sat empty. The unlined grass was cut in neat rows with no cleat marks to break up the monotony. Over at Franklin Heights High, someone put a wreath on one of the locked gates shortly after school began. Now, the schools open one hour before the first bell and close one hour after the last one.

The decision to eliminate athletics has cost the district some of its coaches. While Jordan still teaches at Grove City, he serves as an assistant at North Pickerington High, 23 miles away. Other coaches simply have left. Mark Tremayne, the respected cross-country coach at Central Crossing, left to take a job at Hilliard Darby High.

Dozens of athletes also have left. Most are football players who don't have club or travel seasons like their basketball, baseball, soccer and volleyball counterparts. To keep getting recruited, football players have to play for a high school. One example is former Franklin Heights lineman Cody Evans, a 6-foot-3, 350-pound junior who is drawing interest from a number of Football Bowl Subdivison schools. Evans landed at Briggs High in Columbus.

Some former South-Western students have had to file for emancipation from their parents so they can live in other school districts. One coach said he knows a perfectly happy couple that has legally separated so the student can live with one parent in an apartment in another district.

Jordan Sturgell, a former Grove City High football player, didn't have to go to that extreme, but his parents did have to fill out paperwork for a guardianship change so Sturgell can live with his aunt and uncle and attend Teays Valley High and play his senior season. Sturgell has received interest from schools in Division II, Division III and the Football Championship Subdivision. Sturgell is one of four former South-Western students on the roster at Teays Valley. A fifth decided to return to Grove City after the team's first game. "I can't sit out from football," said Sturgell, who plays running back, receiver and safety. "Football's my life. I love it." When Sturgell's new team opened the season Aug. 28 against Westfall, both starting quarterbacks were former Grove City players.

Sturgell's former teammate, Jeramie Stump, now plays for Grove City Christian. Stump, a 6-foot-3, 273-pound center, chose the school because he felt it gave him the best chance to be seen by college recruiters. He put himself on the recruiting radar with impressive showings at several camps in the summer, and he is receiving attention from schools in all three NCAA divisions. He would love to play for a Mid-American Conference school such as Bowling Green, Toledo or Miami (Ohio), but to get noticed by those schools, he must play his senior season.

Stump considered some of the public schools that offered open enrollment, but he would have faced the same issues other South-Western refugees have faced. Would the team's starting lineup already be set? If he did win a starting job, would he be shunned by his new teammates for taking away a position from their friend?

Stump's mother, Deidre, recently began working again for the first time in seven months after getting laid off. She said she cashed in her retirement to pay her son's $5,000 tuition at the private school. She said moving wasn't an option; two houses on her street have been for sale for months without so much as a nibble.

Stump was one of a group of South-Western students who went door-to-door almost every day this summer trying to drum up support for the levy, which would have required homeowners to pay an additional $254 a year for every $100,000 of assessed value for the next four years. He was among the hundreds who crowded the Grove City Church of the Nazarene on Aug. 4 to await the result of the levy vote. When it was announced that the levy had failed by less than one percent, Stump couldn't believe his ears. Since elementary school, he'd only wanted to be a Dawg. He'd worked his way into the starting lineup for his senior year, and the season was canceled.

The next morning, Stump sat in the parking lot of the same church. On the football field next door, his first practice for Grove City Christian was about to begin. Before he joined his new team, Stump cried. The tears would roll again Aug. 29, when Stump took the field for Grove City Christian's season opener. "I should be focusing on my first game," Stump said, "and I broke down crying."

Others have stayed. Maggie Buechner, the president of the Central Crossing booster club, said her daughter, Julie, chose to stay for her senior year because she already has committed to play soccer at South Alabama. Mayers, who would have been Grove City's quarterback, already has committed to play baseball at Ole Miss. He said he could have played football somewhere else, but it wouldn't have been Grove City football. On that first Friday, Mayers attended the Teays Valley-Westfall game.

"I haven't been back to a game since," Mayers said. "The worst part about it isn't the fact that you're not playing. It's the fact that you've played all your life, and you didn't get to decide that you're not playing anymore. Somebody else decided you're not playing."

Since the last levy vote, school board members have softened their stance on participation fees. While they remain philosophically opposed, they see no other alternative. The question now is how much will after-school activities cost? Cathy Johnson, a retired elementary school teacher who now serves as school board president, said the board is examining possible pay-to-participate options. Some parents and coaches worry that the fees will be so high that many students won't return to the programs. In June, the school board in nearby Reynoldsburg approved a fee plan that asks high school athletes to pay $500 per sport with a $1,000 annual cap. Marching band members were charged $150 each.

Jordan, the Grove City football coach, has heard the conjecture that fees can be as high as $800 a sport. He hopes that isn't the case. "You're not going to have 105 kids coming out for that kind of money," he said. "It's going to devastate your program."

Of course, to institute a participation fee, the levy still has to pass in November. School board members have cut the millage rate for the November vote, but this levy would be permanent. The new levy proposal would require an additional $226.63 a year per $100,000 of assessed value and would raise an additional $18.5 million. Meanwhile, opponents of the levy have promised to fight even harder to defeat it

Terry Jones, the president of South-Western Alternative to Taxes, contends that school board members are trying to force voters to pass the tax by threatening to take away extra-curricular activities and high school busing. Those programs cost $2.5 million and $500,000, respectively; they account for about 1.6 percent of the district's $185 million budget. Jones believes board members picked those programs because sports and public safety issues tend to motivate the electorate. Jones argues that since more than 80 percent of the district's budget goes toward salaries and benefits, the district should ask labor unions for concessions to bring down the cost. Teachers already have accepted a freeze on raises, but teachers with up to 15 years' experience still receive an annual step increase in pay.

"We have the district telling the residents that we need to sacrifice to pass these levies," Jones said. "But yet we don't see those sacrifices coming from the district. The unions are not stepping up. They refuse to."

Though Jones has been painted as anti-student, he believes the students have been dragged into the middle of a political fight. "They have these T-shirts that say 'We Are the Levy'. They ought to change that word levy to leverage," Jones said. "We Are the Leverage."

In an interview at his home in Grove City, Jones was hesitant to reveal any personal information about himself. He did say that he collected unemployment benefits. In August, The Columbus Dispatchreported that Jones is an unemployed roofer who is married with two adult children. The paper also reported that Jones' mortgage lender began foreclosure proceedings two years ago, but Jones managed to keep his house.

Jones has good reason to keep his biography private. He said his life has been threatened and his truck has been vandalized. Some levy supporters even targeted the wrong Terry Jones. Terry E. Jones attended a school board meeting in August to explain that he is not the Terry Jones leading the anti-levy campaign. Jones, who, coincidentally, works at a roofing supply company, told the Grove City Record he had seen messages on the Internet calling for a boycott of his business. He also said he had received an anonymous, threatening phone call at work.

School district officials paint a much different picture than Jones. They argue that sports and busing were cut only as last resorts. "I'd feel differently if that was the board's decision to make our first cuts," Superintendent Bill Wise said. "But after you've implemented $18 million of cuts and cut close to 12 percent of your staff?"

Mark Mayers, the father of Mike Mayers, the Grove City quarterback and one of the organizers of the pro-levy group Citizens for Southwest City Schools, also took issue with the anti-levy crowd's argument that citizens shouldn't vote for a levy until the district learns to spend more efficiently. "I have compassion for the person that actually can't afford it," Mayers said. "I don't have any compassion for the person who says, 'Well, we need to fix the funding system.' I don't disagree that we need to fix the funding system, but turning down our levy does not fix the funding system. It's like having cancer and saying I don't want any treatment. I'll wait for the cure."

A major problem, levy supporters said, is Ohio's system for funding education. When the state government's contribution to local districts remains flat or falls, a district has only two options to manage rising costs. It can cut employees or services, or it can ask the voters to approve an additional tax. South-Western voters have been a notoriously tough sell; in the past 15 years, they've passed only one operating levy -- in 2005 -- and that took several tries. Johnson, the school board president, said every cut has pained her because each one represents "an opportunity lost for a child." Johnson is campaigning for the levy as well as her own seat, which is one of three up for election in November. She warned that no matter who sits on the board, a defeat of the levy will force the district to cut even deeper. Athletics would be gone, but that probably would be a secondary concern. "The next round of cuts will directly impact classroom instruction," Johnson said. "That's what we've been trying to protect."

That's what scares Jordan, the Grove City football coach. He moved his family to Grove City from northeast Ohio to rejuvenate the Dawgs' program. He did that in his first year. But Jordan also has a day job teaching Advanced Placement American history and college-prep government. He worries AP classes might be endangered as well.

"My concern as a teacher is, what's the next level of cuts?" Jordan said. "Are Advanced Placement classes on that list? You don't have to offer that stuff. Now you're getting down to bare-bones curriculum ... Now you're getting to the point where you've got the old brain drain."

While anti-levy voters contend that solutions can be found without a new tax, levy supporters believe a no vote in November will trigger classroom cuts that eventually could doom the district. Chas McCutcheon is a graduate of the South-Western system and a former soccer coach at Central Crossing. An art teacher, McCutcheon left the district before he would have been laid off. He worries about the future if the cuts go deeper. "If we vote no again," McCutcheon said, "the quality of education is going to go through the floor."

A few miles from Franklin Heights High, Broad Street meets Interstate 270, the beltway that runs around metro Columbus. Along the street, multiple business have closed. On one white building, a star-shaped scar reminds passers-by that a Macy's has moved on. Near the northbound on-ramp, a billboard reminds motorists that a big-box electronics chain franchise has picked up and moved to Hilliard. Just like the Central Crossing cross country coach.

Levy supporters worry further cuts would spur more residential moves -- assuming they could sell their houses. Buechner, the Central Crossing booster president, said a district with no sports, no extra-curricular activities and a scaled back academic program could cause a run on For Sale signs purchased in vain. "If it doesn't pass again, I don't know what they'd do," Buechner said. "Who would buy your house? Who would want to move here? No one with kids."

So instead of playing, many of the students in South-Western will campaign this fall to get the levy passed. Meanwhile, Jones and his supporters will campaign to defeat it. Mark Mayers said that after all the ballots were counted, the August initiative fell short by 406 votes. For both sides, every vote will be precious.

Mayers' son, Mike, can't win another football game. He could have left the district, but he chose to stay and continue what he believes is a fight for the future of the place he calls home. "We're from Grove City. We're not from anywhere else," Mayers said. "This is about sports, but it's also about Grove City. The community itself isn't the same."