Short Relief: Stop me before I increase government, again

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Both my children are physically active. In addition to a soccer-playing son, I have a lacrosse-playing daughter. As I imagine most parents do, I want the best for both. While my wife tends to emphasize academics, I tend to focus on sports.

I believe that sports are an important part of a well-rounded education. Call it a gender-linked bias, but a report commissioned by the Portland Public Schools found that the grade point average of students who participate in athletics is 8.825 percent higher than those who do not.

Last month, I attended the Portland High School girls’ lacrosse team banquet. Team parents put on a generous potluck dinner to celebrate their children’s athletic accomplishments. Coaches honored players with awards and anecdotes and tokens of esteem. The whole event was characterized by a spirit of camaraderie.

At the end of the evening, we were summarily informed that the superintendent of schools had decided to abolish the current, team-specific booster system. It was a bit of a downer.

These booster organizations are made up of parents of players. Boosters support their children’s sports in various ways, including by raising money. For the 2009-2010 season, boosters at Deering and Portland high schools raised a total of about $174,000. In recent years, boosters have filled the gap when the school budget was in crisis and spending for athletics was being cut before other programs.

We were members of the girls lacrosse booster organization. During the season, we were peppered with emails about things that we could do to support the team, like help staff the concession stand and ticket booths at Fitzpatrick Stadium home games.

At dinner, we were told that in the future, there would be an umbrella organization. The plan is detailed in several documents, including 10 pages of proposed bylaws. It provides for the creation of a foundation to be in charge of fundraising, with the goal of reaching $400,000 in giving by fiscal year 2015. The money that the foundation raises will be pooled and divided up by a board. The original plan provided for a paid administrator (at about $100,000 in total salary and benefits) to ensure central office oversight of booster finances. It includes co-administrators at Deering and at Portland high schools.

The change was motivated by a concern that the current system was inequitable and might run afoul of Title IX. As amended in 1972, the federal law prohibits schools that receive direct or indirect federal financial assistance from discriminating against anyone on the basis of their gender. A 2006 study found that over 29 years between 1977 and 2006, when Title IX was in effect, the number of girls participating in high school sports increased by a factor of 9.

The Portland school system’s legal counsel analyzed its sports programs. It found them largely compliant. The programs accommodated students’ interests and abilities. Girls participated in sports at rates slightly less than, but still comparable to, boys.

Girls were given similar opportunities to compete. They were treated equally in terms of school-provided equipment, supplies, scheduling of games and practice time, travel budget, coaching, training and medical care, publicity and administrative assistance. There was a discrepancy between the locker rooms and facilities available to boys at Fitzpatrick Stadium versus those available to girls at Payson Park.

The major area of concern was the equipment, coaching and incidental benefits provided by boosters. To the extent that information about booster finances was available and reliable, it showed disparities between the support that boys and girls sports received.

The disparity was greatest between the 2008-2009 Deering football boosters and the most financially comparable Deering girls’ sport boosters, basketball. The boys football boosters provided about $40,000 worth of support, while the girls basketball boosters provided about $10,000. While acknowledging that boosters’ efforts were private in nature, the lawyer opined that their cumulative disparate impact could violate Title IX’s non-discrimination requirement.

It turns out that the superintendent’s decision was not quite the done deal described at the lacrosse banquet. At the June 21 School Committee meeting, the superintendent proposed a consolidation plan and scheduled a couple of public meetings to get feedback.

A parent’s devotion to their child is a powerful force. Parents will do more for their own child than for others’ kids. It’s not a gender-based bias. It’s a kinship bias. People favor their own family. That’s not bad. It’s the building block of society.

The problem arises when you aggregate individual parents’ acts of devotion. When you step back and look at the larger picture, what started out as a parent’s love for their child begins to look like a pattern of booster organizations favoring boys’ sports over girls’.

However, if you combat that favoritism by consolidating and reeling in the booster organizations, then what had been a relatively private effort starts to become official, bureaucratic, rule-bound, public school action. What had been largely voluntary starts to become more obligatory. What had been a donation becomes a mandatory user fee.

I don’t question the value of sport in education, the need to be even-handed, or the usefulness of boosters. I question the need for such an elaborate and expensive plan to regulate parents’ support for their children.

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Halsey Frank is a Portland resident, attorney and former chairman of the Republican City Committee.

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