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Scarborough wrestles with rising cost of school sports, clubs

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Scarborough wrestles with rising cost of school sports, clubs

SCARBOROUGH — Athletic and activity fees didn't have the School Board votes for an increase this year, but the School Department athletic director still believes something must be done to address shortfalls in funding for sports and clubs. 

The School Board voted 4-2 on Aug. 14, with Chairwoman Christine Massengill absent, against a proposal to increase participation fees for school athletics and clubs.

The rejected proposal would have increased fees for high school students to $125 per sport from the current rate of $100, and to $100 from $75 per middle school sport. 

It suggested $5 increases for participation in clubs, to $55 at the high school, and $30 at Wentworth Intermediate School and Scarborough Middle School. It also called for an increased parking fee at the high school, to $30 per semester from the current rate of $25. 

In Scarborough, more than 1,000 students participate in sports and club programs at the middle and high school levels.

School Board student representative Kristen Murray, a rising senior and three- sport athlete at Scarborough High School, said the increased fees for herself and her brother would have cost her family an additional $150 this year. 

"It seems to punish the students who are involved with athletics and activities, which we encourage everybody to do," Murray said.

The suggested fee increase was partially the result of the year's tumultuous budget season. Voters rejected the first budget proposal for being too high, and eventually passed a $41.9 million budget School Board members said would "maintain level services."

Although this year's budget is $2 million more than last years, it's $2 million less than Superintendent of Schools George Entwistle requested for academic improvements. After the vote, school officials vowed to reallocate money from athletics and extracurriculars to pay for adequate full-time arts and world language instruction at the middle school.

Another casualty of the year's school budget was seventh-grade competitive sports teams, according to an announcement from the School Department last week. Details are unclear, but middle school Principal Barbara Hathorn said they plan to replace the teams with a free, intramural program for all grade levels. 

Although the School Board rejected the proposed fee increase, Athletic Director Mike Legage said he believes athletic and activity fees are a small cog in a bigger problem posed by inadequate funding for sports and club programs.

"What's next? Is it going to be eighth-grade sports, freshman sports?" he said. "We collectively as a community have to agree this is of value and fund it properly."

Essential components of athletics and activities are not funded by the School Department, Legage said, noting that booster programs raise up to $500,000 annually.

Some school sports, like ice hockey and skiing, could not exist without booster funds, he said. And boosters also often charge their own additional fees for participation in school sports, an additional cost for students and parents.

Revenue from the school fees has failed to meet projections for the past five years, with the deficit ranging from $70,000 to $12,000, Legage said. But despite the shortfalls, he said athletic fees provide significant revenue to the programs.

Scarborough has had participation fees for about a decade.

In 2008, faced with declining federal and state aid, school officials increased the fee to $25 per sport or activity from the previous $12. They removed fees the following year, but in 2011 reinstated the fees and increased them to current levels. This year, the school budgeted revenue of $157,500 from fees. 

"Coming at this from the fiscal side, (the increased activity fees) are an appropriate recommendation and action to take, because we basically here in Scarborough are living the athletic/activity life that we can’t really afford," Entwistle said. "That's evident by way of dependence on boosters and by way of shortfall." 

Athletics aren't the only school budget item with annual shortfalls, Entwistle noted. Nutrition programs are historically underfunded, too, and the schools annually takes on the the costs incurred by students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch, who are also exempt from athletic fees.

Legage said he feels neutral about charging students fees for participation, but he worries about lower-income families and students who may feel disenfranchised. 

"The kids that don’t ask – I don't know who those kids are. And those are the kids I worry about," Legage said. "It tugs at you."

Legage said parents concerned with the increasing cost of sports and club participation have shown interest in forming a committee to explore better funding avenues.

But Legage warned about stepping into school sports sponsorship, which can be unpredictable each year and could siphon funding from booster programs.

Shelby Carignan can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or scarignan@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @shelbycarignan.