Lake Region area school sports not immune to buget woes

WINDHAM – It’s a story that’s playing out all over the state. With the economy still shaky and most local school districts looking at budget shortfalls, tough cuts have to be made across the board, and that includes athletic budgets.

As each town and school district starts the process of coming up with a budget, athletic directors have been struggling with balancing the needs of the student-athletes in their districts with economic reality. That reality holds true for Cumberland County schools like Windham and Gray-New Gloucester high schools as the athletic directors there work to keep programs operating at a high level while at the same time keeping the cost to the taxpayers down.

The financial crunch facing schools has led local athletic directors and school administrators looking for ways to fairly spread the burden of paying for school athletic programs.

Pay-to-play

One way many school districts in Maine have dealt with the problem of tighter budgets is to implement a “pay-to-play” system, where students pay a fee to participate in an activity or sport. Putting in such a fee has met with mixed results at local schools.

Currently, there is no fee for athletics or activities at Windham High School, though Windham Athletic Director Rich Drummond said the subject has been discussed in the past.

“I think the discussion will come again at some point and it’s a direction that some districts pursue and some do not,” Drummond said. “My personal feeling is that if some sort of activity fee is assessed that (it should be) equitable for all co-curricular programming and just not implemented in one area.”

Gray-New Gloucester High School does have an activity fee for students, said Athletic Director Jeff Ramich. He said the fee has been in place since the 2003-2004 school year.

Ramich said the fee is $25, with an annual family cap of $100, but there are extra fees for some of the more expensive sports. For example, Ramich said Gray-New Gloucester football players play $150 on top of the $25 fee, participants in the school’s alpine skiing program also pay an extra $150 and ice hockey players are responsible for an additional $450.

Like Windham and Gray-New Gloucester, other schools in the area have been dealing with the possibility of charging students to take part in activities and sports.

Gorham has looked at a pay-to-play system in the past, said Athletic Director Gerry Durgin. “We presented (such a system) a year ago, and at that time the school committee voted not to implement a ‘pay-to-play’ policy,” Durgin said.

Like Gorham, there is currently no participation fee in Westbrook, but due to budget cuts looming for 2011-2012, it is something that is seriously being considered there.

Westbrook Athletic Director Todd Sampson said while his initial 2011-2012 budget proposal did not include a participation fee, it did contain some major cuts, including the elimination of all middle school athletics and activities, high school freshman teams and varsity ice hockey, a cut of approximately $200,000 from the 2010-2011 budget.

Westbrook has “tried to steer clear” of pay-to-play in the past, Sampson said, adding that with such massive cuts in the proposed budget, the school committee’s budget committee told the administration that pay to play has to be considered as a way to save some of the threatened programs, especially the middle school programs.

The ice hockey program is an expensive one to run, with ice time costing up to $225 per hour, Sampson said. “That initial ‘sticker shock’ becomes an issue,” he said.

Sampson said the administration is looking at programs in Falmouth and Scarborough to come up with a model for Westbrook. While nothing has been decided, Sampson said that one possible system under consideration would set the fees based on the sport played, with more expensive sports like ice hockey having higher fees. Sampson added that the fees would have to be kept at a level that would not be prohibitive for athletes. “We have to be careful that the cost isn’t so high that it eliminates some kids right away,” Sampson said. “(But) we’re all going to have to feel some pain and we all need to be part of the solution.”

Sampson said he planned on recommending that the school committee approve a pay-to-play system in the interest of saving programs. “If it means saving middle school athletics and as a solution to save the ice hockey program, that would be my recommendation,” he said.

Cutting back

on travel

Rapidly escalating fuel costs have hit everyone in the wallet, and school sports programs are no exception.

With the cost of travel to away games constantly on the rise, schools have looked for ways to stay closer to home and cut back on travel expenses.

Due to league obligations, most schools don’t have much flexibility when it comes to scheduling varsity games, so there isn’t much that can be done about cutting back on travel when it comes to varsity teams. But schools have greater flexibility when it comes to scheduling scrimmages or exhibitions as well as junior varsity or freshman teams’ games, and have looked to find savings there.

That’s exactly what Ramich has done at Gray-New Gloucester in an effort to cut costs. “We will be more creative with the sub-varsity contests and try to schedule more localized contests,” he said.

But Ramich said he wished that there were some possibility of realigning conferences to group schools closer together. As a member of the Class B Campbell Conference, the Patriots have some long trips to road games at far-flung schools such as Mountain Valley and York, and Ramich thinks changes could be made that could help all schools keep their travel budgets manageable.

“All the conferences throughout the state should work together to create schedules that are competitive, but also take into consideration playing schools that are close by,” he said. “You may play different schools for different sports, but this will help the travel lines. I’m not sure it makes much sense for Gray-New Gloucester to travel to Rumford for football when there are at least 10 other schools our size in between Gray and Rumford. (It is the) same when traveling to York or Traip.”

In Windham, Drummond said the school has reduced the number of games at the junior varsity level. Additionally, Drummond said that he looks for ways to schedule away games closer to Windham whenever possible to cut costs. “(We) have reduced sub-varsity schedules and have tried to be more cognizant of geographic competition if it (is possible),” he said.

Boosters

provide help

The financial reality facing school athletic budgets means that athletic directors have to lean on booster clubs to help to pay for programs, and both Drummond and Ramich said that their booster clubs have provided invaluable help in the past and will continue to do so.

Drummond said that the Windham athletic programs couldn’t exist as they presently do without the help of the district’s booster clubs.

“The reduction in state aid has charged athletic administrators to ‘do more with less,’” Drummond said. “Equipment prices, uniform prices, rentals, officials’ fees and all other expenses associated with athletics continue to rise. Due to the economy and reductions in state aid, we as athletic administrators are facing reductions in our budgets. We have had to rely on boosters, community support and extra fundraisers to off set these reductions. In RSU 14, the booster support is great and if we did not have such a hard-working group, the programs would be set back immensely.”

In Westbrook, Sampson said that the boosters would be called on to provide even more help in the coming years. “Westbrook is going to have to begin to lean on booster groups to help with tournament registration fees, travel to New England (championship tournaments) and potentially other general supply needs,” Sampson said.

Other ways to pay

While the booster clubs provide support, schools have to look to raise money to help support their athletic programs, and athletic directors have had to get creative to find new revenue streams.

Ramich said he is always open to new ideas to generate more revenue to help the Patriots’ athletic program. “We are always exploring other avenues to

offset the budget,” he said.

It’s the same case in Windham as Drummond said he looks at everything in the budget and makes sure it’s a necessity. “As an athletic department we are always examining every expenditure and costs associated within the department,” he said. “In these tight budget times, we have to be creative and always ask, ‘is this a need vs. a want?’ We have to constantly look at all areas with in the budget.”

Drummond added that a corporate sponsorship program is “in the early stages,” and he is also open to any suggestions for helping to generate more revenue. “We are always looking for fundraising ideas and welcome more membership in the Windham-Raymond Athletic Boosters,” he said. “It’s a team effort to provide financial support for the programming offered in the district.”

Playoff changes

While the schools have done their best to cut costs when it comes to sports, the Maine Principals’ Association has also made some changes in the interest of saving money. Some of the biggest changes implemented by the MPA involved the reduction of the number of playoff teams in each sport and reducing the number of exhibition games each team is allowed to play.

In previous years, two-thirds of teams in each class qualified for playoff berths. In the last two years, only the top half of each class made the playoffs, a change that the MPA said would save on travel costs.

However, the changes have been met with a mixed reaction, with the general feeling being that the reduction in playoff teams has benefited schools in northern Maine that typically have to travel longer distances to get to road games, while denying some teams that might have qualified for the postseason a chance to experience the postseason atmosphere.

“Personally, I don’t think there has been that much of a savings, but what you have done is taken away more opportunities for kids,” Ramich said.

Drummond agreed with Ramich, saying that he felt that the changes have actually hurt schools both competitively and financially.

“I feel that due to these changes we have lost revenue,” Drummond said. “By capping exhibitions, schools have to prepare a preseason schedule very carefully. Some of those preseason or Christmas tournaments that happened before might not take place now due to rules on exhibitions. Many schools used these exhibitions not only to prepare their team, but to also generate revenue for their respective programs. By reducing the number of teams that qualify for postseason play, it has taken away revenue for schools as the higher seed would host prelim games at their facility that now no longer exist. Not to mention, this has impacted how many student-athletes get to compete in a tournament atmosphere. It can also be argued that by limiting the number of teams that qualify for the tournament that travel expenditures have increased.”

Sampson agreed that the savings were not as great. “Those concepts work well for smaller rural Maine communities,” Sampson said. “But when there were prelim tourney games in Class A West, Westbrook would generate revenue at these games due to the gate and concessions.”

Like Drummond and Sampson, Durgin questions the effectiveness of the changes, adding that other changes made by the MPA have actually put an additional stress on schools like Gorham instead of helping.

“There is much debate on did the reduction actually help or was it a political statement that we are doing something,” Durgin said. “Officials’ fees do continue to go up along with mileage reimbursement…yet those lines in our schools’ (budgets) are being reduced. Officials want our endorsement on three-man systems, I repeat the lines for officials have gone down in the last three years – less money doesn’t support more. Doing more with less isn’t working!”