By Ashley Luthern
and Elise Franco
In the face of voter rejection at the ballot box and declining state assistance, school districts projecting budget deficits are looking for ways to generate revenue.
Poland recently joined several area schools in charging athletic fees, a practice commonly known as pay-to-play.
But in all six districts surveyed by The Vindicator, athletics make up less than 2 percent of each district’s overall spending, and is dwarfed by their general operating funds. The bulk of the spending, usually 75 to 85 percent of the general fund, is dedicated to personnel costs.
The schools with pay-to-play and other activity fees argue every bit of revenue helps. Those without pay-to-play counter that revenues generated by such fees amount to a drop in the budget bucket and are detrimental to students.
“Pay-to-play has got to be part of a business plan,” said Rocky Nitolli, president of the Poland All-Sports Boosters Club. “[School-board members are] coming up with a $200,000 to $300,000 solution to a $2 million to $3 million problem. What is the rest of the plan?”
THOSE WHO PAY
Implementing pay-to-play fees for students seems to be gaining ground.
Poland will begin charging $200 per high-school sport and $100 per middle-school sport next school year.
The district’s general-fund budget is $19 million, and of that, 79 percent accounts for personnel costs. The athletic fund is $151,000, said Treasurer Donald Stanovcak.
Assuming a 20 percent drop in participation, a common estimate, these fees would generate about $111,000 in extra revenue, according to estimates from the athletic office.
Poland is expected to have a $200,000 carry-over at the end of the 2012-13 school year and a $2 million deficit by 2014, according to a financial forecast.
Reaction to the school board’s decision to institute a fee for athletics and a transportation fee for marching band was met with a tepid response. Most concerns focused on a no-cap system that also did not take into account a family’s financial needs.
Paul Sherman, a parent who spoke at the last board meeting, said it’s a question of fairness.
“If this was the solution to all the financial problems in Poland, then I could see them taking the hard-core approach that everybody’s got to pay the full amount. But because it’s just a drop in the bucket, to abandon compassion is just absurd,” Sherman said.
The idea that groups such as boosters clubs could help students in financial distress surfaced at a couple of Poland school board meetings, but organizations contacted by The Vindicator said they don’t do that.
“But we would never sponsor individuals, only teams,” said Tim Sicafuse, vice president of the Poland All-Sports Boosters Club.
The club pumps tens of thousands of dollars into Poland sports teams to provide equipment, uniforms and awards, among other things, he added.
At a recent club meeting, “people were disappointed [about pay-to-play], but they realize there are funding problems.”
“It’s not the good old days,” Sicafuse said.
Boardman began its athletic fee this school year and charges $50 per high-school sport but caps the fee at $100 per student and $200 per family, said Treasurer Richard Santilli.
There is no discount for students who receive free and reduced lunches because athletics “are not a requirement,” Santilli said.
In Boardman, $604,525 of the $38.7 million general fund is used to pay for salaries and benefits of coaches, while 83 percent of the general fund is used to pay for the district’s other personnel costs.
A separate student-activity account, about $225,000, is generated by gate sales and pays for game officials, security and equipment, for example. The student-activity account usually receives a $50,000 transfer from the general fund to make sure the activity account is balanced, Santilli said.
He estimates the athletic fees will generate about $34,000 this school year.
“Going forward, more and more districts will have to do this. The revenue side is not there,” Santilli said.
Canfield, like Boardman, implemented pay-to-play for the 2011-12 school year.
It’s projected to bring in $145,000, which is about 25 percent of the district’s $588,800 athletics budget, said Treasurer Patricia Kesner.
“It is a small percentage of the total overall budget, but it did cover one-fourth of the athletic budget, so I think it did make a difference,” she said.
High-school students pay $200 per sport, and middle-school students pay $100 per sport. The district doesn’t have a per-student or per-family cap.
The district’s general fund is $23.7 million, with 84 percent for personnel costs. Canfield is projected to have a $1.2 million budget deficit in 2015, Kesner said.
Tom Kamenitsa, president of the Canfield Athletics Booster Club, said district parents were unhappy when athletic fees were thrust upon them, but they’re adjusting.
“I think they know it’s a necessary evil,” he said.
Lakeview is no rookie when it comes to pay-to-play programs. The district implemented athletic fees five years ago, said Matt Miller, vice president of the Lakeview Bulldogs Booster Club.
“It’s been successful in allowing the school district to keep as many of the athletic programs as possible,” he said.
Milton Williams, Lakeview treasurer, said the district cut its athletic fees in half after residents approved a 3.75-mill operating levy in 2010. High-school students pay $100 per sport, and middle-school students pay $75 per sport. There is a maximum of $200 per student or $400 per family.
This year, pay-to-play fees will generate $45,000 for the district, Williams said.
Miller said because parents “support the athletics, they’ve accepted the issue.”
Lakeview’s general fund for the 2011-12 school year is $15.7 million, which dwarfs its athletic fund of $256,000.
Eighty percent of the general fund is used for personnel costs.
He said the district also has about $100,000 in an athletics student activity fund that is separate from the overall budget and managed by the athletic director. Money for the fund is derived from ticket sales and booster-club donations.
It’s used to pay for equipment, uniforms, supplies and payments to officials and game workers.
THOSE WHO DON’T PAY
Austintown, Struthers and Liberty have no immediate plans to implement pay-to-play programs, though Austintown Superintendent Vincent Colaluca said the district tried it in the mid-1990s.
“It went very poorly,” he said. “So many kids left for Mineral Ridge and other districts where they didn’t have to pay.”
Colaluca said though pay-to-play may be the right decision for some districts, it’s wrong for Austintown.
“Pay-to-play would put our students at a disadvantage,” he said. “How many kids would leave us because of that?”
The district was unable to fulfill The Vindicator’s request for budget data by Friday afternoon.
Liberty School District Treasurer James Wilson said pay-to-play recently was discussed, but the board of education decided against it.
“We have a large student population getting free and reduced lunches,” he said. “How can we, as a district, go out and ask students and parents to pay when they’re in that situation?”
Liberty has a general fund of $16.9 million with about 65 percent going toward personnel costs. The athletics fund is $200,000.
Wlson said he’s projecting a $1.3 million deficit in 2013.
Struthers Superintendent Robert Rostan said pay-to-play “has never been seriously considered” in the district.
“We had a very bad experience in 1995 where we cut all extracurricular activities beginning with fall of 1995, but they were reinstated beginning with the winter season. They were cut for financial reasons,” Rostan said.
At the time, Rostan was an assistant high-school principal in the district and said about 90 students left, though not solely for athletic reasons.
The district’s overall budget is about $17 million, and of that, 79 percent goes to personnel, he said.
The athletic fund is $260,000 or about 1.5 percent of the overall district’s spending, and about $5,000 is transferred annually from the district’s general fund to athletics.
Although Struthers has been able to generate revenue through open enrollment, the district is projecting a $3 million deficit in 2016, Rostan said.
“Certainly, every savings we can find helps, but we would have to weigh that against the fact that many of our students would simply not be able to participate,” Rostan said.
With issues like cuts in state funding — projected at $3.14 billion for the next two school years statewide — school officials admit athletic fees aren’t a long-term solution.
In Boardman, the district saved more than $3 million last year by eliminating 26 teaching positions, two administrative positions and three non-teaching jobs, but is still projecting a multi-million-dollar deficit in less than four years.
Santilli says the district’s budget continues to hemorrhage because when students leave to attend charter schools, they take state dollars with them, a subject that will be fully discussed at a public forum at 6 p.m. Monday at Boardman Performing Arts Center.
“The climate is right for people to talk about these big issues,” Santilli said.
In the last two years, Poland’s cuts totaled more than $1.4 million, including more than 60 district employees either having their jobs cut back or eliminated.
School-board President Dr. Larry Dinopoulos said the district first must decide if it will authorize open enrollment.
“We’re going to get that out of the way. [The superintendent] has given us some information as far as elementary enrollment and costs associated with it and how we’re going to look to manage the class sizes and more than likely downsize the elementary process with fewer sections of grade levels.
“... If the enrollment stays the way it’s going, we’ll end up closing a school,” he said.
Dinopoulos said the athletic fee indicates priorities for a district that hasn’t purchased new textbooks since 2009.
“Truly from a philosophical standpoint, how can the school board continue to pay for athletics when they can’t pay for books?” he said.