Should pay-to-play fees be eliminated?

A two-sport athlete at Lakota East or Lakota West pays $700 in annual participation fees — maybe the equivalent of a family’s monthly rent or a couple of car payments.

That athlete would pay a far less amount at many other Butler County schools, including $250 at Fairfield or Monroe high schools, $225 at Talawanda High School, $200 at Hamilton or $100 at Middletown.

Some school districts offer family caps, while others do not. Some don’t charge for a student to participate in a third sport, yet others do. And if a student is on a school’s free-and-reduced lunch program, some districts don’t require them to pay any pay-to-participate fees, but others don’t have that policy.

Since there is no state law on the books, sports fees are an issue of local control for each school district. However, two elected state officials — State Sen. Cliff Hite and Secretary of State Jon Husted — are pushing to eliminate these fees, saying they discourage kids from playing.

“It’s about giving children the experiences they need in school to prepare them for life,” said Husted, who played on a national championship football team at the University of Dayton. “We know these fees serve as a barrier to those experiences, and we need to knock down that barrier.”

Though most local school officials agree low fees would be ideal, they say these fees are necessary as a way to offset, in some cases, upwards of hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual school athletic costs.

Statewide discussion

After concluding his statewide tour in November, Hite told the Journal-News he’ll release his findings and recommendations early next year. Hite wouldn’t say whether there is a legislative solution to the fees, but said he’s open to the possibility.

Several local school officials spoke late last month at a hearing held in the Miami Valley, citing how a “state crackdown” solution banning fees would cause deep funding issues in some districts.

“I have no doubt you all have the best intentions … (but) are we only going to keep basketball and football because you get gate receipts?” said Beth Weber, treasurer of Sycamore Community Schools in Hamilton County. “I urge you not to make this a state issue. It’s not one you want to take on.”

Hite said he understands the school’s perspective and doesn’t want to see adverse effects, such as schools cutting programs in response to legislation. However, he still wants to hear more from parents and students.

“I would like to hear from students who can’t afford to play. I would like to hear from kids who could go big time, but didn’t have the money to play. Schools were saying it doesn’t happen — but it probably does in some cases,” Hite said.

Effect on local school districts

In September, the Monroe Board of Education voted to cut its pay-to-participate fees by $100 for the first and second sports a student plays, and this was the district’s first fees reduction since the policy was enacted three years ago. The Monroe Local School District’s 2014-2015 budget was $19.8 million, but outside of salaries the district’s operations are paid via gate receipts, according to the district’s finance department. That totals, on average, around $100,000 a year, according to the department.

“The Monroe Local School District believes that local control of decisions impacting our students and community is essential for our residents,” said Monroe Athletic Director Jesse Catanzaro. “As a district, we have tried to prioritize the spending for taxpayer dollars on the required educational opportunities for all students.”

But can a district’s sports programs survive if a state law outlaws pay-to-participate policies?

Pay-to-participate fees, which include extracurricular activities beyond athletics, contributed by Monroe Local parents last year was approximately $125,000, which Monroe Superintendent Phil Cagwin said covered almost a third of all extracurricular expenses.

“If the state legislature took the ability of local school boards to decide for their respective community schools, that amount of money would have to come out of our general operating expenses,” he said. “That would then force our school board to decide how to compensate for that loss. They would be forced to consider budget cuts to educational programs, or reduction of the number of extracurricular offerings to our students, or ask our booster organizations or local businesses and community members to increase donations to our extracurricular programs.”

Hamilton City Schools Treasurer Robert Hancock said some districts charge “rather high fees,” but others like Hamilton “charge relatively modest, or low, fees in comparison.”

“Some districts try to recoup all of their costs of the athletic program,” he said. “We have never tried to recoup coaching salaries and fringes. We merely are trying to partially defray some of our costs.”

Like other districts, Fairfield City Schools spokeswoman Gina Gentry-Fletcher said the district would have to review its current resources “and look for ways to sustain these opportunities for our kids. The challenge is making decisions on what is best for students without compromising the integrity of our instructional program.”

Some districts have only recently instituted a pay-to-participate policy, such as Monroe which was started around three years ago. But Lakota, Fairfield, Hamilton, Middletown and Talawanda have a long history with its pay-to-participate policy.

“We support letting school districts work with their local communities to determine the right balance in sharing the cost of extracurricular programs,” said Randy Oppenheimer, spokesman for the Lakota Local School District, which has had a pay-to-participate policy for 15 years.

Echoing what some school officials said during Hite’s four-meeting state tour, Oppenheimer said, “We don’t support a one-size-fits-all decision at the state level.”

“If the state did institute such a policy, banning pay-to-participate fees, Lakota would have to re-evaluate its budget as extracurricular programs are one part of a larger budget,” Oppenheimer said. “We manage the entire budget as a whole. No single line item can be decided in isolation.”

Talawanda, which instituted its policy in the early 1990s, has reduced its pay-to-participate fees over the years, and there are scholarships available to pay for the fees, said Holli Morrish, Talawanda spokeswoman.

While there isn’t any financial forecast on how eliminating participation fees could possibly impact Talawanda’s budget, Morrish said, “Certainly, that would put greater pressure of the high school/district and the boosters organization/team committees. If this comes to pass, Talawanda will put together a team to develop a plan to deal with this.”

Hard choices

If pay-to-play fees go away, schools in every corner of the state would feel the pinch.

Tim Stried, director of information for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said 46 percent of schools statewide reported using some form of pay-to-play fees in 2014. He said he would be “very surprised” if any high school athletic departments in Ohio are fully self-sufficient, with sports revenues covering all expenses, including coach salaries.

Stried said sports usually account for 2 to 3 percent of a school district’s total budget, meaning cuts won’t make a big difference for the district overall. But he said it hits home when the choice is to cut sports or cut a few teachers.

“It’s a dilemma because on one hand, OHSAA would love to see either no fees or small fees,” Stried said. “But I know there are some schools where if they didn’t have fees, they would eliminate some of their teams. It’s a difficult situation for sure.”

Participation down among some

A book by Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam convinced Husted that something has to be done about participation fees in Ohio.

In the book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam writes that poor children are worse off today than when he grew up in the ’40s and ’50s near Lake Erie, in part, because fewer are participating in sports.

According to his data, 86 percent of students from the highest-income families participate in extracurricular activities — slightly higher than during the 1970s — but participation among the lowest-income families is down about 15 percentage points, to 65 percent.

“No one talked (50 years ago) about soft skills, but voters and school administrators understood that football, chorus, and the debate club taught valuable lessons that should be open to all kids, regardless of their family background,” Putnam writes in the book.

The message hit home with Husted, who said extracurricular activities reinforce teamwork, discipline and other character-building skills.

“I know this from personal experience,” he said. “I was not a good student. I was a good athlete. It was athletics that led me to academics. It was athletics that taught me the toughness and perseverance that helped me succeed in life.”

Husted said extracurricular activities “correlate as much with success after school as do test scores.” Yet, he said, schools charge fees for band or football “when we wouldn’t do that for a math class.”

However, some question whether fees truly keep out students — given that many schools waive the fees for low-income students and overall sport participation continues to rise.

“I’m certain there have been isolated cases where fees have affected participation numbers, but certainly nothing widespread across the country,” Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrote in an email to the Journal-News.

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