Falmouth school board ponders pay to play

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FALMOUTH — School Board members on Monday said they are thinking about  getting away from the pay-to-participate model for high school and middle school activities.

No action was taken at the workshop meeting and, given that it is very early in the budget process, it is unclear whether there will be any changes made to the fee system next year. But board members did say they were interested in leaving the system in the next budget and/or phasing it out over time.

Pay-to-participate, a system in which families pay a set amount of money so a child can play a sport, was first implemented in 2009 following budget shortfalls, according to School Board member Danielle Tracy. She said the board had decided to take another look at the program and review whether other co-curricular activities – after-school programs such as drama, chorus and debate – should be covered as well.

Currently, parents of student athletes pay a fee per child, per sport: $175 for most high school sports, with $100 for track and cross-country. Middle school students pay $100 for most sports, with the exception of $50 for track and field. The annual fee for co-curricular activities in high school is $25, and $20 in middle school for participating students.

According to Dan O’Shea, the school department’s director of finance and operations, the current model has a budget of $150,000 for athletics and $17,000 for co-curricular activities. The total budget for pay-to-participate is $167,000.

O’Shea said all co-curricular activities charge fees “in theory.” But given that students often come and go depending on their interest, and the difficulty in establishing a consistent collection method at the schools, collection “has not happened consistently.”

The board discussed a few possible alternatives to this system, including reducing the costs for each sport gradually. For example, charging a $125 fee for all high school sports and $50 for all middle school sports would then equal a budget of $129,000. Creating an annual $50 fee for sanctioned co-curricular activities, such as drama and chorus for both schools would mean a budget of $8,000.

Another possibility discussed was a one-time charge for sports, meaning a family would pay a set cost for a single student, who could then play as many sports as he or she wanted. A single $175 fee for high school students and $100 for middle school students would equal a $90,000 budget.

Assessing all students in co-curricular activities a $25 fee each year was discussed, which would allow each student to participate in as many co-curricular activities as they want. Charging $25 per student in both schools would mean a budget of $29,500.

Superintendent Geoff Bruno said the single fee for sports would encourage multi-sport athletes, and a $25 fee for activities would encourage students to get involved with more co-curricular activities.

O’Shea said every $22,200 in lost revenue from the pay-to-participate program equates to a $1 tax impact for every $100,000 worth of real estate in town. A $50,000 reduction in revenue would equate a $2.30 tax impact for every $100,000 in property. Removing the entire $167,000 in revenue from pay-to-participate would mean a $7 tax impact for every $100,000 of property value.

School Board member Josh Barrett said the values students learn both in playing sports and participating in co-curricular are important to student development, and said the costs should be “completely contained within the budget.”

“This isn’t difficult to me,” he said.

Other board members agreed they would like to see the costs of pay-to-participate contained within the budget. However, Bruno reminded the board they are at the very beginning of the budget process, and the prioritization of wants and needs in the budget “can be pretty ruthless.”

Bruno said while $7 of additional property taxes per $100,000 of property may not sound like much right now, when pitted up against classroom needs, “suddenly that $150,000 is a lot” to make up in the budget.

School Board Chairwoman Lucy Tucker said the consensus was to continue exploring the possibility of eliminating the program, but “we know we may have to compromise,” she said.

The School Board finance committee will meet with the Town Council finance committee Dec. 16 at 5 p.m. in Council Chambers to begin preliminary budget discussions for fiscal year 2017.

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Seal of Falmouth

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.