Published Online: June 15, 2009

Recession's Impact: High School Sports Face Cuts

Tyler Peters has wrapped up his high school athletic career — now he can only feel sympathy for friends who are underclassmen at Coral Gables Senior High.

Across the country this spring, the recession has taken its toll on high school athletic programs. As states and school districts have tried to shore up their budgets, Florida has proposed some of the most drastic steps.

The Florida High School Athletic Association is considering sweeping, two-year schedule changes with all sports except football canceling some matches, meets or games. The changes were approved earlier this year, and officials then tabled a recommendation to rescind or modify the plan.

A swimmer in high school, the 18-year-old Peters said he might have given it up if his season had been cut down.

"If I had three or four meets a year — the season's so short," Peters said. "It kind of seems like you're doing that for nothing. That's a part of the experience. If you take those competitions away, you feel like you're practicing for something less important."

When the fall season starts, many young athletes will feel the effects of cost-cutting measures.

A high school football coach in Washington said he will have tattered uniforms patched up instead of requesting new jerseys. A Virginia school district is exploring "creative" transportation, under which teams would share buses. And throughout California, which faces a grim financial situation, districts are bracing for tough cuts that could devastate entire programs.

"Help," said Marie Ishida, executive director of the California Interscholastic Federation. "It could be dire."

Bob Kanaby, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said a handful of other states have also made across-the-board changes to help districts cope with the adverse financial climate. For example, New York has shortened its sports schedules, and in Maine, fewer schools will be allowed to compete in the state playoffs.

"Certainly in these economic times, we want to try and draw balance and perspective between educational experiences for young people and the realization that our nation is in a serious economic situation," Kanaby said. "So there is concern, and there is action being done. ... But first and foremost, I think across the board that whatever occurs within a school district of a state that it's very clear that these are things that are affecting the lives of young people, and people will do whatever they can to minimize that effect as much as possible."

Since the economy tumbled, programs have found themselves on the chopping block and districts are asking students to chip in and help cover the costs. Some examples:

• In California, some high schools have eliminated coaching stipends and decided they will ask students and parents to contribute donations.

• Officials with the Kent (Wash.) School District, located about 30 minutes outside Seattle, will cut $110,000 in athletic funding, said district athletic director Dave Lutes. That's still an improvement from the original proposal of $760,000 in reductions, which Lutes said would have devastated the program.

• Some high school coaches at Mohawk High School in Oregon worked without pay this spring. A baseball coach at another high school in the state, McKenzie High School, put his salary in a bank account and said he would donate it back to the school if necessary.

• Because of statewide funding cuts, Santa Fe (N.M.) Public Schools were considering switching middle school athletic programs to a club-team format. Those changes were eventually rejected, district spokeswoman Erica J. Landry said, but officials did cut two high school athletic managers for a savings of about $160,000 to $180,000 a year. Even with those staff reductions, Landry said athletic programs might be on the chopping block again next year.

"The problem is that you don't have the money," said Dan Domenech, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "And if you don't have the money, you have to make tough choices. ... That's what I think is really unfortunate about this. The resources just aren't there and we don't know what the effects are going to be."

For some young athletes, the situation could have been even worse.

When officials in Maine mulled dropping a meet that the runners and their coaches had long fought to include on their schedule, 17-year-old Melody Lam, a distance runner at Mt. Blue High School, helped organize a protest before an indoor meet in January at Colby College.

On the day the Maine Principals Association voted on the proposal, Lam skipped school so she could be there to hear the results. The meet was saved.

"In the end," she said, "I think it was kind of hard for them to ignore our opinion."

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