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Sports Programs Emerge as Political Footballs in Funding Battles

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When the Chicago public schools lost a districtwide reading program and 90 percent of their funding for supplies last year, the situation went largely unnoticed outside the education community.

But when the city's high school principals threatened several weeks ago to eliminate extracurricular activities, including athletics, major corporations, radio talk-show hosts, and sports celebrities raised almost $1 million within weeks.

To capture the attention of the public and the politicians--and get needed money in a time of budget constraints--observers suggest that school officials in Chicago and elsewhere are using the specter of a season without football, basketball, and baseball as political leverage.

"They decided to use the athletic program because it is highly visible, because it matters to people in the community,'' said William Ayers, an associate professor of education at the University of Illinois in Chicago.

"It is a very dramatic gesture. I think [it was] completely appropriate given the attack on public education,'' he said.

Chicago schools were not the first to eliminate sports or threaten to do so. In recent years, athletics has become one of many programs that school officials around the nation have targeted as they wrestled to balance ever-tighter budgets.

Yet, rather than eliminate what is considered a sacred cow in many districts, officials have tended to levy user fees or retreat from their position in the face of community outrage.

Administrators in the Montgomery County, Md., schools, for example, recommended scrapping interscholastic high school sports last year after county officials imposed cuts on the district. The program was preserved amid public outcries.

"Very honestly, I think this was a ploy to show the [county] council what would happen,'' said an aide to one council member.

The unfolding of events in Chicago, though, has highlighted the tactic of using sports to galvanize support.

"It has gotten the attention of a lot of people. It has made legislators and other people realize schools must be short of money and they must be interested in educating boys and girls because they are willing to sacrifice sports,'' said State Sen. John W. Maitland Jr. of Illinois, a member of the state's school-finance task force.

'The Last Straw'

When the central administration in Chicago reduced the extracurricular budget from last year's $2.9 million to $2.1 million, it was not done with the intention of having the private sector fill the gap, according to David C. Rudd, a spokesman for the school district.

Nonetheless, after the city's high school principals voted unanimously to eliminate sports and other extracurricular activities if money was not forthcoming by Nov. 1, General Superintendent Ted D. Kimbrough asked local sports teams and luminaries for donations to save the winter and spring programs.

The principals took the vote to send a message to the central administration, according to Charles Mingo, the principal of DuSable High School. "Either you give us something we can work with or we just cut it out,'' he said.

Last year, Mr. Mingo said, high schools lost assistant principals and librarians in addition to other cuts. This year they lost library aides, clerks, and truant officers.

Then, three to four weeks into the football season, the administration told the principals that they would have to make do with smaller extracurricular budgets, he said.

"No, we didn't think we would get [outside financial] support. We were just frustrated. We just felt this was the last straw,'' said Mr. Mingo.

'The Kids Would Suffer'

Whether intentionally on the part of the principals or not, some observers say the decision turned out to be a shrewd move. Almost immediately, the Chicago Sun-Times newspaper established a foundation to benefit high school activities and contributed $100,000. Other sponsors stepped forward, including the basketball superstar Michael Jordan. Within a couple of weeks, the foundation had amassed close to $1 million.

Officials of both Foot Locker, a nationwide sporting-goods retailer, and Nike, the athletic-wear manufacturer, said the motivation of school officials was unimportant in their decision to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars. What mattered, they said, was helping the students.

"Perhaps the principals were 'crying wolf,''' said David Goldberg, a vice president of Foot Locker. "We're apolitical about this thing. We're not saying it's right or wrong. We're saying that as things stood, it was the kids who were going to suffer.''

"Definitely it touches more of a nerve than something like [toilet paper or textbooks] would,'' said Shana Hayes, an assistant to Steve Dahl and Garry Meier, a team of disc jockeys on radio station WLUP, who both contributed and used their morning rush-hour program to help get the fund-raising rolling.

"Regardless, we want to help,'' Ms. Hayes said. "We can't seem to fathom these children who are already at a disadvantage going without extracurricular activities.''

Ms. Hayes also characterized the fund-raising drive as a "bridge.''

"Certainly it is not something we're going to allow the schools to fall back on every year,'' she said.

Slim Share of Budget

Some observers of district budget practices contend that the central administration could have found the money elsewhere. With an overall budget of $2.6 billion, "$800,000 is a drop in the bucket,'' said Pat Daley, a former school board member.

While praising the corporate sponsors, Ms. Daley said the responsibility lies elsewhere. "The state shouldn't be left off the hook that easily, and the board shouldn't be left off the hook that easily.''

However, other observers say they are not particularly worried about the practice of private sources plugging districts' budget gaps.

"If the private sector is willing to jump in and help, bless 'em,'' said Michael Casserly, the acting executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools. "My big concern is larger--public support for these school systems.''

"When people are squeezed up against the fiscal wall and there is no money from traditional sources, this is a pretty creative idea,'' said Allan Odden, the director of the Center for Research in Education Finance at the University of Southern California. "I don't really see a down side to it, unless people say we can tax outside activities and therefore we don't have to fund athletic programs anymore.''

Mr. Odden said officials also run the risk of obtaining the money to salvage sports only to face a skeptical public the next time they seek additional education funding. "It seems to me it's a high-stakes rationale.''

In fact, the emotional appeal of sports is about as high as the line item in the budget is low--typically about one-tenth of 1 percent of the overall budget, according to the National Federation of High School Activities.

Taxing Pro Sports

In San Francisco last year, the city's board of supervisors added a tax on tickets to home games of the city's professional baseball and football teams to help fund school athletic programs when the district said it was short of money for the activities.

What was to have been a one-year tax on Giants' and 49ers' games, however, has been extended another year, through the 1993 seasons.

Ramon Cortines, the former superintendent of schools in San Francisco, said he was not using athletics as political leverage when he made the decision that extracurricular activities would be cut.

"They are an integral part [of education], but when you have a budget crisis you have to make priorities,'' Mr. Cortines said.

"Also,'' he added, "I was taking a big risk. I thought people would come to help us.''

The help came in the form of the tax, which the pro teams have not wholeheartedly embraced.

"We want to help, but we don't feel we should be selected to do 100 percent of the burden,'' Murlan Fowel, the director of stadium operations for the 49ers, said last week.

The idea of seeking help from professional sports teams is spreading.

"We found out it was successful in other places. Why not here in L.A.?'' said Catherine Carey, a spokeswoman for United Teachers-Los Angeles. The union's president, Helen Bernstein, recently sent letters to the city's five professional sports teams, asking for their financial support.

So far, union officials said, only the Dodgers have responded to the letter, declining the invitation to help.

Ms. Bernstein accused the baseball team of being "non-civic-minded.'' Union leaders also have complained that district officials have buried the issue in a school board committee.

Were Los Angeles to add a 25-cent tax to the sales of each professional-sports ticket, it would produce an estimated $1 million a year, according to Mr. Odden of U.S.C. In contrast, he said, cutting salaries 1 percent would yield $20 million in savings.

Teams' Initiatives

Professional sports, however, has been helping out public schools. Most of the National Football League and National Basketball Association efforts to date have been aimed at supplementing academic programs and keeping youngsters in school rather than bailing out athletic programs.

However, at a meeting last month in the wake of the Chicago ultimatum, the N.F.L. team owners said they would explore the idea of setting up programs to help high school sports.

In the past several years, the N.B.A. has ventured into funding programs for local high school sports. Thus far, the Golden State Warriors in Oakland, Calif., and the Boston Celtics have programs.

Last year, the Warriors raised $90,000, primarily from auctioning sports memorabilia, that was divided among the city's public high schools, said Fran Endicott, the team's director of community relations.

"Our program is unique in that people are getting something they want,'' said Ms. Endicott. "It's not just the Warriors writing blanket checks to everybody. We're filling the desires of the collectors, plus we're helping the schools.''

The Chicago Bulls also considered a local program to fund sports, but "it has become so political they thought they should just sit back and see what happens,'' said Paula Hanson, the vice president of team services for the basketball league.

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