Could 'pay to play' fees save teaching positions?

Students that participate in high school varsity sports may end up having to pay to play in the near future.

In yet another difficult budget season for the city’s Board of Education, the district is being forced to balance its 2018-19 budget by examining what else can be cut from its initial proposal.

One of the options the board is exploring is the possibility of eliminating sports teams at the Intermediate School, eliminating freshman and junior varsity sports at the high school, and creating a “pay-to-play” program for all varsity sports.

The SHS headmaster, Dr. Beth Smith, said she couldn’t confirm whether this would actually be taking place or not, as the Board of Ed is scheduled to balance its budget and explore its best options for cuts at its Wednesday night meeting.

“At that time, the Board of Education will speak to how they are remediating the deficit,” said Dr. Smith.

Board of Ed Chair Mark Holden said regardless of the method the board selects to balance its budget, “it’s going to hurt.”

Holden also said the possibility of implementing a fee for students that participate in varsity sports could save multiple jobs.

“Many of our neighboring towns charge for varsity sports,” said Holden. “We did up until three or four years ago and, frankly, the last time pay to participate was put in was approximately 10 years ago when the Board of Education had to eliminate almost 100 employees because of a similar budget crisis. It was found that implementing pay-to-play would save approximately three teaching jobs. We’re looking at a similar scenario now of trying to save two or three teaching jobs by doing this.

“Preliminary indications are probably looking somewhere around a $250 fee,” Holden speculated before saying that there are still details that need to be clarified and voted on.

He added that the board still needs to decide whether it would be an annual fee and how it would handle athletes that play more than one sport.

“Would they pay that price for every sport? We’re still trying to figure that out,” said Holden. “The way we used to do it was a maximum cap per family. People who were on free and reduced lunch would get a discount on a first-sport cost, however the cap remains the same. If you had a few kids who were very active in sports you didn’t really get a break.”

At this point in time, Holden said the board is main focus is keeping in mind the education of the students.

“There’s some limits on what can be cut and the trick is to find the least damaging cuts possible,” Holden continued. “Unfortunately, there will probably be some reductions in things like building maintenance which is never a good idea, but we’ve got to cut where we can, when we can. I expect by the time we walk out of that meeting we will have a budget that is balanced.”

Despite the possibility of students paying to participate in sports potentially saving multiple teaching jobs, not everyone is in favor of that decision.

Mayor Mark Lauretti said students and their families shouldn’t have to pay to play. The mayor said he hasn’t had a conversation with members of the Board of Ed to hear its reasoning for the idea, but stated that he’s been opposed to this proposal since it was passed in 2010 for the first time.

“I don’t think they should have to pay at all,” said Lauretti. “Someone needs to question how they (Board of Ed) manage or don’t manage their money. You make bad decisions, it’s easy to point the finger at somebody else.”

Holden approximated that the Board of Ed repealed those fees in 2014, and said that it’s only being considered because desperate times call for desperate measures on the board’s behalf.

Transportation costs

According to the superintendent, Dr. Chris Clouet, the option to implement fees on varsity sports is being considered because of additional costs brought on by the Board of Ed needing to cough up $800,000 to cover the costs of the district’s new school transportation contractor not having access to the city’s bus yard, repair facility or 60 propane buses.

“It is possible if we continue to be underfunded and have to add that the cost of providing buses, even though the taxpayers have already paid for buses, the board is definitely considering a pay to participate program,” said Dr. Clouet.

According to Holden, as the district’s deficit grows, the Board of Ed is forced to look more closely at what can be cut.

“Up until the mayor pulled the buses away, we were still looking at how we would make $750,000 in cuts just to maintain where we were,” said Holden. “Any of that that could’ve come from a less expensive bus contract would’ve been great, but we needed to have a plan and we needed to know what it was going to cost us. When Chris spoke with the mayor about it he asked ‘Can you guarantee that there will be savings and can we use those savings within our budget to preserve jobs?’ The mayor said, ‘no.’ That was pretty much him shooting himself in the foot. We’re not going for an unknown cost plan that for all we knew could cost more than we’ve already been offered and we’ve got Durham telling us that they need to prepare for the job.”

Now in June, Holden said it’s possible the city could have 60 idle propane buses.

“Here we are in June, it’s not going to be easy for him to sell the buses in time for next September,” Holden said. “I’ve heard the mayor say that he can sell the buses for $2.5 million, but I question that. Frankly, when he bought the buses he didn’t get as good of a deal as he thought. He paid about $1 million more than what AllStar was going to pay for the same buses, which is partly because AllStar purchases a bunch of buses every year and the mayor was a first-time buyer.”

Staying on the city’s good side

According to Holden, Dr. Clouet turned in a formal request to Board of Aldermen President John Anglace for six additional School Resource Officers (SRO) to be dispersed among the city’s schools.

“We didn’t include a request for SRO in our budget because we were getting to the point where we were in danger of the mayor and aldermen being angry with our request,” said Holden. “Essentially, you don’t want to go there; then you’ll get even less than if they were just annoyed. I’d be very happy to see more of them in the schools. It’s good for kids to develop relationships with the police at a younger age.”