By Ann Doss Helmsahelms@charlotteobserver.com
Athletics director Vicki Hamilton and some school board members are seeking ways to save a scaled-back middle school sports program without forcing cuts in other Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools programs.
In their quest to find almost $700,000, they say it might be time to consider fees for athletic participation.
"To tell you we're not looking at 'pay to play,' I wouldn't be telling you the truth," said Hamilton, who says 36 states charge athletic fees in public schools.
The middle school program costs almost $1.3million, a relatively small slice of a $1billion-plus budget and the $80million in cuts CMS could face. But the cut, which the school board nixed last year, is an emotional flash point.
Some say CMS shouldn't hesitate to whack athletics when hundreds of classroom teachers face layoffs. Because middle schools don't have full-time coaches, no jobs would be sacrificed. The savings would come from coaching stipends, transportation, game officials, security, uniforms and equipment.
Others say sports build character, encourage fitness and motivate kids to meet requirements for grades and attendance. About 6,200 CMS students took part in middle school sports last year, although students who were on more than one team counted more than once in that tally.
"If you're not a middle school athlete, you just don't understand how important it is to us," said Sierra Wiley, a basketball player at Piedmont International Baccalaureate Middle.
She also plays for the AAU team Queen City Jewels, but it isn't the same, she said: "Playing in front of your peers, it's like a whole new level of excitement."
"The fact is, there are some kids who remain in school because of sports," said school board member Tim Morgan, a former Pop Warner football coach. He, Joe White and Rhonda Lennon are working on ways to keep middle school athletics alive.
"If it's axed for good, you probably will never see it again," White said.
They've already resigned themselves to losing some of the 13 sports now offered in the district's 32 middle schools. Hamilton said cutting back to six - one girls' and one boys' team for each of the three seasons - would trim the cost to about $963,000. She hasn't revealed which six she'd save.
Charging an extra $1 for high school sports tickets would raise $263,000. But Hamilton said she'll have to find another way to cover the rest.
Asking the board to pull that money from other programs isn't an option, she and her board boosters agree. The $700,000 gap equates to roughly 14 teacher salaries, a tradeoff no one wants to make.
And Hamilton said any solution has to be countywide and sustainable. She said one parent has already offered to bankroll sports at his own child's school; she said no thanks.
"We're not going to fund 14 schools that happen to be located on a certain side of Charlotte," she said.
Access for low-income students is also a challenge with a fee-based system.
"There are some middle schools where 'pay to play' is a no-brainer. The parents have the ability to afford it," Morgan said. "There are others where it's going to be a real impediment to people being able to play."
Charlie Adams, who recently retired as executive director of the N.C. High School Athletic Association, said other states charge $50 to $500 per student.
"Nobody likes it and so far we've been able to hold tight and not have to do that," he said recently.
But Tameka Williams, the mother of a seventh-grader on the Piedmont girls' track team, said she'd gladly pay to help keep the teams alive.
"It's a way to represent your school," said Williams, whose daughter, Maya Grier, also runs with the private Charlotte Flights.
Parents, students and coaches see competitive middle school sports as a first step toward college scholarships. Piedmont girls' track coach Billy Leeson said he followed that path, starting in junior high. "That's what helped me get to school; if it hadn't, I'd have been back in West Virginia working in the coal mines."
Patti Kinney with the National Association of Secondary School Principals said when she was a principal in Oregon, where there were fees for middle and high school sports, there was a cap on how much any family would pay. Families who qualified for lunch subsidies could get their fees waived, or kids could "work it off," she said.
The association hasn't tallied how many districts are cutting middle school sports to save money, but "I do know it is happening."
CMS is looking for partners and sponsors to help keep adolescents active. The YMCA of Greater Charlotte, which already has about 3,700 kids in youth sports, drew up a plan to help last year, when Superintendent Peter Gorman first suggested the middle school cut.
Laura Ferguson, who is in charge of sports, said the goal would be creating YMCA teams with school identities: "I played middle school sports, too. Your pride is in wearing your school name."
The challenge would be recruiting volunteers and raising money, she said, but the Y is eager to work with CMS. "Any loss of physical activity is sad for these kids."
Board member Trent Merchant has chided his colleagues for spending so much time agonizing over sports when bigger educational issues are on the table. He was among five board members who authorized Gorman to move forward on $63million in cuts, which include eliminating all middle school sports.
Merchant said it's fine if staff can figure out a way to salvage some, but the most important thing is to make a decision so folks like Ferguson at the YMCA can gear up to fill the gaps.
"We just need to fish or cut bait," he said.
Middle school sports: Football, volleyball, baseball, softball, soccer*, basketball*, track*, golf*, cheerleading.
Participants: 6,226 last year, down slightly from previous two years. Students on more than one team count more than once.
Stipends: Range from $719 for golf coaches to $1,259 for football coaches. Middle school athletics directors get $1,439, and sports trainers/first responders get $1,439 to $1,799, depending on credentials.
(*Count twice because there are girls' and boys' teams.)
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