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Waiting For The Bailout

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All across western Pennsylvania—and America in general—school districts are undergoing budget cuts. Middle schools are getting hit the hardest, and one of the areas most commonly on the chopping block are middle school sports programs.

The districts don’t necessarily want to make these cuts; they are simply doing so in order to save money and fit within these newer, smaller budgets. For example, Upper Saint Clair schools approved a reduced budget of $59.2 million, as well as a property tax hike of .33 mills. Along with the smaller budget came the elimination of three professional positions and one administrator within the department.

There is very few, if any, positive consequence to come from these budget cuts. Many different people are negatively affected, including coaches, assistants, community members, parents and of course the young athletes themselves.

“All the coaches are operating within that school system, which has been the model for decades, and that model is going to be broken,” said Brad Cashman, the executive director of the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA). “The rich will get richer; they will be the ones who can retain those programs. But the poor will be the ones who end up eliminating these programs.”

The school districts hold the middle school coaching contracts, as well as cover the costs to pay officials and transportation to make middle school sporting events happen. These costs will now need to be covered by other means.

While members of the communities affected by these cuts often protest the decisions of the school districts, the one—and possibly only—solution is more community involvement and support. In other words, it cannot be a matter of school district versus community.

“We all want the same thing,” said Ed Blacka, a parent and the basketball coach for the McKeesport middle school basketball program. “We need to continue to emphasize that the schools need the parents and the parents need the administration. If everyone has the same common goal, then nothing but good can come of it.”

One example of the community and parents sharing a common goal is taking place in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Hendrick Automitive Group—one of the largest car dealers in the area—donated $250,000 to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to fund middle-school sports in the coming academic year.

The school system had planned to reduce sharply the number of middle-school sports because of budget cuts. The Hendrick sponsorship, combined with an anonymous contribution, provides full funding for 13 sports at all 32 middle schools in the district.
photo by Mike Kalasnik
“It’s important to recognize the position schools are in with regard to budgets,” said Rick Hendrick, chairman of Hendrick Automotive and owner of the Hendrick Motorsports NASCAR team. “Everyone knows sports are a big deal to the students and our communities, but they have to make hard choices. People aren’t going to make those cuts if they can help it. If there are other ways we can preserve sports programs, I think those have to be looked at – whether it’s bringing in local corporate sponsors or discussing other options where private funding can help.”

While Hendrick's generous donation solves the issue for a year and possibly sets an example for other community-minded businesses, it remains a band-aid measure.

As budgets continue to be cut and middle school sports programs eliminated, athletes figure to be pushed into to recreational programs, which will most likely fill up quickly, thus running the risk of becoming overcrowded and overpopulated. More volunteer support will be needed from community members and parents.

Another solution is to start combining middle school programs into the next level of athletics: freshmen-only sports programs in high schools. According to the PIAA's Cashman, this is a less desirable solution.

Cashman explains that the specific progression of school sports exists for a purpose: middle school, freshmen-only, junior varsity, then varsity. The system is designed so that it can gradually introduce players to the sport, beginning with the basic skills required and building a team concept, and then moving on to a higher level of competition.

“By cutting off the first level, you lose the continuity and the first level of introductions to pre-adolescent athletics to interscholastic athletics,” said Cashman.

Some schools are already considering this option of having sub-high school programs funded, he said. Juniata county in central Pennsylvania, for example, is considering combining two of their programs into one. But for the kids, however, this will mean that many athletes who normally get to play will no longer get that opportunity.

Another possible solution places the onus on the respective booster clubs of each individual sport to cover the difference in costs.

For Mike Sevin, a local parent of two middle school athletes in Moon Township, this responsibility is not realistic for parents to uphold.

“Parents can’t always be responsible for fundraising on the community end,” he said. “You’re also paying taxes, so it’s nice to see the school use that.”

The long-range repercussions of these cuts are clear, but still don’t answer the question of how the kids will be affected.

Sevin says it's important to keep solidarity strong and for the community to keep working with the athletic departments in order to yield the best possible outcomes.

“Kids are impressionable,” said Sevin, “Kids at that age need to be kept busy, and parent involvement is important in that. We’re at a crossroads here, so you've got to stay busy and keep yourself focused.”
photo courtesy of KidSports Magazine
Hendrick also believes there are ways to solve the issues if the schools and the communities continue to work together.

“Things can be done in appropriate ways that preserve what sports at that level should be about – the kids.”

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