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Pay-to-play option is back in play

By Lloyd Jones
CONWAY — Pay-to-play may be back in play at Kennett High and Kennett Middle School.12-3-pay-to-play skiingKennett students may have to pay to participate in sports. (JAMIE GEMMITI PHOTO)
With an escalating budget projected for 2013-14 and a dramatic increase in athletic participation to the point that several new coaching positions are being proposed, the Conway School Board is considering instituting user fees for extracurricular programs at the high school and middle school in order to generate revenue for the school district. The last time user fees were looked at closely by the board was in 2009, but the board ultimately chose not to go down that path.
The high school and middle school did have user fees for one year in 1996-97 and generated approximately $30,000. The board has not yet developed a fee rate; however in 1996-97, students paid $50 for fall sports or their first sport of the year. If they participated in a second sport, they then paid $30 for that sport. Anyone who participated in a third sport paid $10 for that sport. Much of the revenue generated at the time was offset by the hiring of someone to oversee the funds.
At the time, Kennett and Hanover High were the first schools to try user fees for athletics. While Kennett stopped after a year, Hanover still to this day charges a fee, $150 per sport, and is among 30-plus schools with a fee, according to the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association.
The board, which had been seeking a zero increase to the budget aside from any health-insurance increases, learned last Monday that the proposed 2013-14 budget is up about $1.3 million — or 4.18 percent— over the current year, not counting a possible $1 million in proposed special articles.
The news gets worse for taxpayers who could be looking at a significant drop in school revenues. Superintendent Carl Nelson doesn't have all of the projected revenues yet, but he alerted the board that tuition revenue from sending towns will be down approximately $600,000.
Nelson explained the biggest increases to the proposed budget are essentially all items the school board has little control over. There's a $652,562 increase in the special education budget along with $176,781 jump in the technology budget; an increase in health insurance; fuel costs; and state-mandated retirement contributions.
Given the increases, the board is again tossing around ideas such as pay-to-play for athletics and the arts. The board has instructed its co-curricular committee to investigate what other schools in New Hampshire are doing for user fees and report back by the next meeting on Dec. 10.
The co-curricular committee met Oct. 26 and is recommending additional athletic coaches at the high school and middle school to help offset an 11 percent increase in athletic participation. The positions include a second cross-country coach for the middle school as well a funding a middle school cross-country ski coach, a position that has previously been entirely financially supported by MWV Nordic Club. At the high school, new positions include an assistant cross-country coach (coach Bernie Livingston had 51 student athletes this fall); an assistant track coach (the school had 100 athletes last year for the sport); a freshman baseball coach (there were 60 boys under two coaches); and a freshman boys soccer coach, which since its creation two years ago has been funded by the soccer boosters.
This coming spring also marks the time where the lacrosse program should gain financial support after operating with limited financial support during its early years seeking to prove its sustainability. The district is being asked to fund salaries for a varsity and junior varsity coach.
The positions total $14,359.
"We met a month ago," board member John Skelton, who chairs the co-curricular committee, said, "and voted on these positions without the money (attached to each position) because there is a need for them. When we get beyond 20 athletes per coach in a sport it becomes problematic. I'd contend and would argue that it becomes a liability issue (from a safety standpoint)."
Commonly referred to as pay-to-play, roughly one-third of high schools across the state have implemented some type of fee for students who choose to play sports, especially those with a higher per-player cost, said Patrick Corbin, director of the New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association.
According to a survey of 92 NHIAA member schools in the fall of 2008, 32 were charging students to play sports, Corbin said. The sport that students were most frequently charged to play was ice hockey, which is typically the most expensive sport for a school to run. Of the 32 schools using pay-to-play, 20 were charging a fee for ice hockey, Corbin said.
Corbin couldn't say whether there are more schools implementing pay-to-play, but it's definitely being discussed more often, especially given tight school budgets.
It was a hot topic at the Conway School Board meeting last Monday night.
"If we need to stay (at a zero percent increase to the athletic budget) then I would suggest we look at items other than people," Skelton said and suggested such budget requests a $5,000 blocking sled for football might have be fund-raised for rather than be in the next budget. "The people to service the kids is the real need."
"I applaud the work the committee has done but I don't think we can afford this with the increases (to the budget) we have coming," board member Dick Klement said.
The co-curricular committee is also recommending intramural coordinators for the high school and middle school at $1,850 each.
"My understanding is Kevin Richard (middle school principal) has been running intramurals at the the middle school for a number of years," Rick Breton board member, said. "I agree with Dick that the athletic directors at both schools could do this."
Breton also wondered if the football sled could be refurbished. "I'm sure it could be done for less than $5,000," he said.
Board chairman Janine McLauchlan pointed out there is a committee designed to set up a matrix for coaching salaries and said the committee should be charged with determining how to add the additional coaches without increasing the budget.
"We gave them the responsibility of divviing up the funds, let's see what they come up with," she said.
"I'm sure they know what they need," fellow board member Lynne Brydon added. "A lot of schools have pay-to-play. I think we might be at a place where we might have to do it. Schools in Massachusetts have been doing it for some time."
Brydon suggested the fees would be waived for any students in the free-and-reduced breakfast and lunch programs.
"We want to offer the best to our students," Brydon said and pointed out her sister is a school superintendent in a district where the students have a $168 per sport pay-to-play policy.
"To play devil's advocate, we already do have some sports that are already pay-to-play," board member Kelley Murphy said, pointing out high school hockey players currently are paying $1,100 to play while lacrosse players are paying $110 for their sport.
"If we were to include those sports in the athletic budget and then have everyone equal I think we'd see our costs skyrocket."
"We had this conversation three or four years ago," Klement said. "As soon as the conversation started, the audience got big and loud. I, for one, think pay to play is a good idea. We as a board need to have the intestinal fortitude to say we thank you for your concerns but we have to do a pay-to-pay for the budget."
Board member Syndi White is tired of having every board meeting centered around athletics. She'd like to see the dialogue shift to academics.
"It seems like every issue that comes up has to do with sports," she said. "Sports in our budget is almost at $1 million — it's getting to the point where sports are taking precedent over academics. We heard Neal (Moylan, principal of the high school) say he wants to put more money into sports and could do it by cutting an English teacher. I think we're at a tipping point.
Moylan is proposing cutting an English teaching position bringing the staff in that department down from 12 to 11, but over half of the projected savings in such a move would go to technology (computers) and also another third going to the guidance department.
"If we are already charging for hockey and lacrosse, why can't we charge for the other programs?" White added.

Editor's note: Lloyd Jones is an at-large member of the Conway School Board's co-curricular committee.
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