Sports fees haven't caught on yet in Valley
A burgeoning statewide trend of school districts putting in sports participation fees has not been felt in its entirety in the Alle-Kiski Valley.
Officials throughout the Valley, however, say the fees may still be put in play in their districts.
A Pennsylvania School Boards Association study last month found the percentage of school districts reporting sports participation fees tripled from 2010 to 2013, from 13 percent to 38 percent.
With two of its 15 school districts charging participation fees in 2010, the A-K Valley was consistent with the statewide figure four years ago.
But only one additional Valley district has implemented a fee since.
Why the trend hasn't fully translated to the Valley was inexplicable to state Rep. Paul Clymer, R-Bucks, who chairs the state House Education Committee. Clymer said he was unaware of the PSBA study before his interview last week with the Valley News Dispatch.
“It's a significant number of districts (across the state), and it's an alarming trend,” he said. “It's difficult to say what exactly is causing it. Each district is different, and there's no one-size-fits-all explanation for it.”
Because Pennsylvania does not consider sports a part of mandatory public education, school boards and districts are able to charge participation fees at their discretion.
The PSBA study didn't account for reasons behind using fees, but athletic directors and business managers across the Valley point to the 2011-12 school year as a turning point.
That's when, they say, the money started getting tight.
According to the Education Law Center, Gov. Tom Corbett's first budget affecting that school year cut basic education funding by $1.18 billion, or 15 percent.
The budget cut state funding for basic education back to 2008-09 levels, when state dollars were supplemented by federal stimulus money. When the federal stimulus funding dried up after the 2010-11 school year, districts across the state were faced with smaller budgets and tougher decisions, according to Clymer.
“You always wish there was more money to spend in education, but sometimes it's not there,” Clymer said. “Athletic programs in a lot of school districts need to rely more heavily on community support now and find alternative ways of fundraising since the stimulus money expired.”
The 2011-12 school year was when the Franklin Regional School District joined Deer Lakes and Armstrong charging families an extracurricular activities fee.
Franklin Regional Athletic Director Zach Kessler said the board had to implement the fees to avoid cutting some of the district's sports.
“Personally, I'm not completely in favor of the fees, but it saved some of our programs,” he said. “I, the administration and the school board all place a high value on these activities and what they contribute to a student's well-rounded experience. We didn't want to let them go.”
For a flat, $50 annual fee, seventh- through 12th-grade Franklin Regional students can participate in any number of extracurricular activities. They include all sports and other activities like band and chorus.
George Dick, 47, of Murrysville has three kids who graduated from the district before the fee was put in place. He has a fourth who's now in eighth grade and plays baseball.
Dick said he hasn't seen a decline in sports participation since the fee was implemented. He said that dissent among parents been minimal.
“If it's not in (the district's) budget, I think it's a better alternative to have those that participate paying rather than raising taxes on everybody,” he said. “If it was $250, you might hear more squawking, but it's a pretty nominal amount of money.”
Armstrong's flat annual fee of $20 carries the same stipulations as Franklin Regional's.
Armstrong's fee has been in place for the past decade.
Deer Lakes implemented its fee in the 2010-11 school year. The district collects a fee of $75 per player, per sport per school year. There is a $300 cap for families with multiple athletes and/or multiple sport participants.
In each of the school districts, participation fees are waived for students who qualify for the free or reduced cost lunch program.
“It's a necessary evil,” said Deer Lakes Athletic Director Charles Bellisario. “You don't like asking for it, but I don't think we'd be able to cover costs for equipment, transportation and officials without the fee.”
While only 20 percent of the A-K Valley's school districts charge sports participation fees, several athletic directors and business managers say the issue is often discussed among officials.
The New Kensington-Arnold School Board asked Athletic Director Mark Kaczanowicz in 2011 to research the feasibility of a “pay to play” fee. After polling dozens of athletic directors throughout the region, Kaczanowicz advised the board to steer clear from the fee.
The logistics of collection, he said, coupled with the high percentage of students enrolled in the free or reduced lunch program ultimately deterred the board from pursuing the fee.
“That was years ago, but it's come up again a couple times since,” Kaczanowicz said. “With a new board and superintendent since then, I wouldn't be surprised if the issue is seriously discussed again.”
The district has not cut any of its sports programs since.
Neither has South Butler County School District, whose board discussed a fee last year but decided against it, according to Mike King, athletic director. King said that sports programs were not in danger of being cut.
While there are no imminent plans to implement a fee, King said “that issue could be revisited at any time.
“It would be tough, but I think it would be understood by all parties,” he said. “South Butler's no different than any other district.
“You have to get more and more creative with these budgets all the time.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 or firstname.lastname@example.org.