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$100 athletic fee sidelining some athletes

As the high school sports season begins this week, a new policy is keeping some of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ student-athletes who can’t afford a $100 participation fee off the field.

Some games have been postponed, coaches said, because schools didn’t have enough players to participate.

Beginning this fall, CMS changed the formula it used to determine which high-school students qualify for a waiver of the required $100 fee to play sports. The fee has been required since the 2010-11 school year to help pay program costs.

Previously, the fee was waived if a family qualified for free or reduced school lunch.

Now, students have the fee waived only if they qualify under a government program called the Community Eligibility Provision.

The CEP qualifies students “using information from other programs, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and the Temporary Assistance Program for Needy Families instead of traditional paper applications,” according to its website.

Students can’t play, according to CMS, until they pay $100 or meet CEP criteria.

That change in policy is causing a lot of confusion and is having a big effect on local high school sports as the fall season begins this week, coaches said.

CMS coaches and athletics directors contacted by the Observer on Thursday said they had been told by the district not to comment. Coaches who asked that their names not be used said that some soccer and volleyball matches have been postponed because schools didn’t have enough players who had the participation fees waived or paid. Other coaches talked to the Observer earlier in the day before being told not to comment.

At Butler, football coach Brian Hales said at least 10 of his starters could or would be affected by the new policy. He didn’t know how many total kids had been affected.

“It’s a struggle,” he said. “I know a lot of people have issues with it. I’m not sure a lot of families just have money laying around to say, ‘Here’s 100 dollars, take that.’ I’m hearing a lot of the same issues are affecting other schools. People are scrambling.”

At East Mecklenburg, football coach Barry Shuford said he has 62 players on junior varsity and varsity but at least 20 hadn’t gotten their athletic fee issues resolved. He said families are confused about the change, and many were bringing their free and reduced lunch certification letters to school, which were enough for the waiver in the past.

“Now, a kid can come in with the free and reduced letter from CMS to get free lunch but won’t get the fee waived,” Shuford said. “You’re about to throw that on a family who’s got two brothers and have to come up with $200 at this late date.

“Our (athletics director) tried to explain it at a parent meeting Aug. 9, but (families) are just getting letters in the mail now. A kid whose dad lost his job can qualify for free and reduced lunch but can’t qualify for the waiver. My question is CMS can waive SAT fees, (NCAA) Clearinghouse fees, registration fees – all based on that (free and reduced lunch letter). Now CMS says you can have free lunch but it won’t use that standard to waive the (athletic) fee.”

Sue Doran, athletics director for the district, said the change in the waiver fee policy came after CMS joined CEP, which offers free breakfast and lunches to qualifying students by using information from other government-based aid programs to determine eligibility.

Five CMS high schools qualified for full CEP funding, meaning all students, regardless of income, would receive free meals: Garinger, Harding, Vance, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg.

System-wide, 74 of 160 schools in CMS qualified, meaning 40 percent or more of the student population at those schools received some form of federal aid such as food stamps, Medicaid or were in the Head Start program.

“We had to look for consistent participation fee criteria to fit all of our schools,” Doran said. “At all of our schools, if you’re directly certified, your participation fee is waived. If you have to make applications, fees are not waived. There’s going to be a group of students that have had their fee waived in the past that will not fall in directly certified status.”

Doran acknowledged that this is a big policy change.

“Change is hard,” she said. “Four years ago, we had a change where we introduced participation fees. Now with this move to CEP, it’s precipitated another change in waiver criteria. It doesn’t impact all of our families, and student-athletes will still have criteria where families directly certified will get the fee waived.”

Doran said the policy change was not financially based. She said the district was trying to be fair.

“We didn’t look at making any changes in the participation fee until the change to CEP and with that came the need to tweak the criteria,” she said. “Because at schools where everybody eats free, there’s going to be families at those schools that get free and reduced lunch (but wouldn’t normally qualify for it).

“When I talk to parents, what I tell them is we looked for consistent, fair criteria for all families in the district and when all that was taken into consideration that came out to be (CEP) directly certified status. I can understand where there would angst within a family that had it waived in the past and with the new criteria it’s not waived.”