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Districts Get Creative to Avoid Charging Pay-to-Play Fees


With schools struggling to stay afloat during an onslaught of budget cuts, a number of them have started making student-athletes and their families pay to participate in K-12 sports.

Let's face it: School sports aren't cheap. Schools have to deal with equipment costs; maintenance of fields, courts, and rinks; coaches' salaries; and all sorts of medical considerations to be made for student-athletes.

So, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise to find out that 33 states have at least one school charging pay-to-play fees, according to a 2009 surveyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader by the National Federation of State High School Associations.

But some schools are making the most out of their lot, even in these trying times. Let's walk through a few of the more popular ways that schools are avoiding having to charge their students pay-to-play fees.

Sponsorships: In a recent surveyRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, 57 percent of roughly 360 schools said they accepted corporate money to keep K-12 sports programs afloat.

The National Survey of Interscholastic Sport Sponsorship in the United States, published online earlier this year in the Sport Management International Journal, revealed that one-third of the schools surveyed turned to sponsorships because of budget cuts, while roughly 25 percent said they needed sponsorships to avoid pay-to-play fees.

Take the Tacoma, Wash., school district. It added paid advertisements to video scoreboards—which will cost roughly $400,000 to build—as the ads are expected to bring in roughly $106,000 in revenue each year. After covering the cost of the scoreboards, the district plans on spending the excess ad revenue each year to support middle school sports.

David Pierce and Leigh Ann Bussell, authors of the sponsorship survey, noted that "there is clearly room for growth in the interscholastic sport-sponsorship market," as "administrators were cautious in the solicitation of sponsorship" with small-time deals, limited options for advertisements, and a lack of outsourcing to sports-marketing firms to help sell sponsorships.

Booster clubs: An article from this month's edition of the American School Board Journal noted that districts have resorted to leaning on booster clubs for support, but the boosters must be wary of potential Title IX violations. Earlier this year, Havervill (Mass.) High School's booster club was prohibited from waiving its football team's pay-to-play fees with a $15,000 donation, according to EagleTribune.com, as boys would stand to benefit more than girls from the donation.

Then, you've got cases like Fraser (Mich.) High School, where the booster club raised $45,000 to avoid having any student-athletes deal with pay-to-play fees, according to C & G Newspapers. The boosters collected from concession-stand revenue at football games, a fall craft show, and a raffle in the spring.

On the other hand, some booster clubs have welcomed pay-to-play fees with open arms, as the Fort Mill Times reported last year. The Fort Mill school board considered chopping middle school sports in response to budget cuts, because of the annual $190,000 cost per year, but a $100 pay-to-play fee was instituted to help offset the cost. The district's booster clubs would cover the remainder, under the pay-to-play plan.

Fundraising: While sponsorships for K-12 sports may sound like a foreign concept, some good old-fashioned fundraising should be familiar to all.

For instance, after voters in Mount Vernon, N.Y., twice voted down the school district budget in 2008, the district was forced to adopt a budget with no funding for sports, according to Sports Illustrated. "Coaches, athletes, parents, and community leaders rallied and raised almost $1 million," according to SI, including a $100,000 check from actor Denzel Washington, who grew up in the area.

Fundraising activities don't have to be nearly that extravagant, however. Teams and athletic departments can sponsor car washes or hold bake sales. The money from these types of activities won't fund a school's athletic department on its own, but it'll help stuff the coffers a bit.

And, keep in mind, creativity is critical for these fundraising efforts. The National Federation of State High School Associations' September 2009 edition Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader of "High School Today" referenced a southwest Ohio district that "forged alliances with a grocery store, pizza shops, a Mexican fast-food chain, and other restaurants" in its ongoing fundraising efforts for athletic teams.

TV/other media contracts: The NCAA recently came down hard on the prospect of airing high school sports on university-branded television networks, in response to the University of Texas' plan to air high school games on its newly created Longhorn Network. Let's just say you shouldn't expect high school sports on NCAA networks any time soon.

That said, there's nothing prohibiting K-12 schools from locking down TV contracts with non-NCAA affiliated vendors. In mid-July, news broke that the New York City public school system was negotiating a two-year, $500,000 contract with the MSG Varsity Network—a Cablevision network dedicated entirely to high school sports.

The legal route: Last but not least, you could always hope that your state's legislature decides to challenge the constitutionality of pay-to-play fees in public K-12 schools, like California's state Assembly started doing earlier this year.

In the 1984 case Hartzell v. Connell, the California Supreme Court ruled that public schools could not charge pay-to-play fees for extracurricular activities because they were "educational in character." Yet an investigation last summer by the San Diego Union-Tribune found that multiple schools in the San Diego area openly listed pay-to-play fees on their athletics websites.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a class action against California in September, alleging that more than 40 schools were violating Hartzell v. Connell by charging pay-to-play fees. The ACLU and then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a settlement last December, requiring schools to fully reimburse parents for any pay-to-play fees.

The nuclear option: Of course, for districts that don't opt for the pay-to-play route, and can't afford to keep running their sports program at their current level, there's always the nuclear option: shuttering some (or all) sports entirely.

Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples reported on one such Ohio high school back in 2009 that ultimately did shut down all sports because of budget constraints. "Dozens" of players transferred out of the district to pursue athletic opportunities elsewhere, leaving the school's football coach to wonder, "Who would want to move here?"

Photo: The Juniata County School District voted recently to cut all funding—between $400,000 and $500,000 annually—for athletics to offset a budget crunch as a result of Gov. Tom Corbett's $1 billion reduction in education spending. East Juniata high school athletic departments have become entirely self-funded and parents have to pay anywhere from $250 for their children to participate. (Sean Simmers for Education Week)

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