Michigan high school sports are facing a financial crisis unlike any Haslett’s Jamie Gent has seen during his 42 years as a high school coach and athletic director.Every day he worries about how the next few years will unfold for his roughly 900 students, about half of whom annually play – and pay – for sports.
So far, the cost of balancing budgets has come in cuts of assistant coaches, new equipment or school funding of less popular sports such as bowling. But next month, the Capital Area Activities Conference will consider cutting contests from their freshman and junior varsity schedules.Ionia County’s Saranac High School could end its wrestling, competitive cheer and boys golf programs immediately if enrollment isn’t up when school begins in September.And that could be just the start.Freshman teams in some sports are next on the block. Farther down the road? Potentially, some sports – perhaps those with strong club counterparts like tennis and swimming – could disappear entirely from the high school landscape, or in the least become fully paid for by athletes with no help from schools.”There’s no money, period,” Gent said. “We’re coming to a stage in the next three years that if things don’t get better, (it could damage) sports altogether. Who do you pick? What stays? What sport doesn’t stay?”As another athletic year gets under way Monday, with the first day of football practices across the state, the grim financial picture foreshadowed in schools’ increased reliance on sports participation fees as a way to help struggling budgets.No matter what the fees are labeled – pay-to-play, athletic registration, or simply transportation fees – more schools statewide are introducing or raising them.In a 2003 State Journal report looking at 30 districts closest to Lansing, 14 charged fees. Now, 21 do.Haslett is one of 26 public and private area districts – of 44 total in the area – that charges student-athletes to participate in athletics. Of 11 that increased their fees heading into this school year, Gent’s school raised its price tag the most – $50 – up to an annual fee of $150 per student.Pay-to-play fees generally count as revenues in an athletic budget, along with receipts from ticket sales, for example. Still, most of sports budgets are supplemented with a transfer from a district’s general fund – meaning participation fees in the long run don’t make up much. But when a $2,500 assistant coach is up for a cut, every dollar counts.Most athletic directors see this school year as being very tough – but they’re bracing for the situation to get far worse.”The sense that we’re getting from people right now is this could be the last year where people are working the edges to try to make ends meet. That (20)10-11 is where the anticipation is the bigger cuts are likely to occur,” said John Johnson, communications director for the Michigan High School Athletic Association.”When that happens is when you’ll see more things like increased participation fees, if not a move of some sports to being totally self-funded.”Pocketbook pinchTom and Leigh Szedlak have three kids playing sports in the Haslett school district – Catie, a junior intending to run track and cross country and play basketball this year; Ryan, a freshman football and basketball player and golfer; and Shannon, a seventh-grader who will play basketball at her middle school and soccer and softball in outside organizations.Last school year, the family paid $175 in sports participation fees – $100 for Catie in high school and $75 for Ryan in middle school. This year, they’ll shell out $375.But that’s a good buy, Tom Szedlak said.”It is tough to swallow. But we basically went to Haslett years ago based on the reputation of academics and athletics, and we feel it’s worth it to keep the kids active,” he said. “Obviously, no one wants to pay higher fees. But if they need to do it to keep a freshman program running … maybe we’ll have to make (family) cuts somewhere else.”The range locally starts as low as $25 per year at the area’s smallest school, Holt Lutheran, to $200 per year at Okemos, one of the largest. All area schools charging participation fees provide assistance for families that can’t afford them, usually based on qualifications in the free-and-reduced lunch program.There is no hard and fast rule for who has participation fees and who doesn’t. Only three of the area’s nine Class D – or smallest – schools charge fees. But mid-Michigan’s largest high school – Holt, with roughly 1,900 students – also doesn’t, although its junior high athletes pay $40.Grand Ledge – the area’s second-largest high school with roughly 1,750 students – raised its fee $30 to $130 this fall while facing $132,000 in cuts from its athletic budget.Fees are a big chunk for the family of senior Jennifer Snelgrove, a star runner for both the Comets’ cross country and track teams, and one of six children in her family. On top of her fee, last year her family paid for three pairs of shoes, a bag, shorts and her sports physical.”Everything you have to buy, plus paying so much to the school to play that sport, I think it’s a big deal. It’s a lot of money,” Snelgrove said.Feeling the painAdministrators are being creative in preparing for whatever’s next.A big part is raising revenue to offset costs. Okemos expects revenues of $256,000 for grades 7-12 this school year, more than one-third of its total $713,000 athletic budget for those grades. Much of that revenue comes from participation fees.Most have also been preparing for the downswing for a while, trimming longer road trips, a few tournaments from the schedule, or not replacing uniforms as frequently as they once did.Ashley athletic director and football coach Joe Holloway put it in a perspective relative to any size school: “An extra long trip to Onekama might cost us a couple of helmets.”Coaches, ADs and players are feeling the impact of the cuts already made.Lansing’s public schools, including Everett, Sexton and Eastern, slashed a combined $243,000 from their athletic budgets this school year. Most of that came in the form of assistant coaches, forcing Everett football coach Marcelle Carruthers and others to shuffle their staff.Losing an assistant for him meant losing five responsibilities, from on-field instruction to scouting. He’s looking for a volunteer to take over, but finding someone who can coach at 2:30 p.m. during the week – for free – is not easy.”We can do it. We’ll find a way to make it work,” he said. “We’ve got to pick up the slack.”And then there is the issue of quality. Schools know keeping programs goes a long way toward keeping students. Enrollment totals are directly related to the amount of yearly state aid schools receive.That’s heightened the fight to keep whatever athletic departments can. St. Johns athletic director Chris Ervin argues that while his department serves 45 percent of St. Johns students, his budget makes up just 1.6 percent of the whole. Raising his fees $40 per student will solve $13,000 of the $23,000 his budget lost heading into this fall.”When you take transportation and coaching salaries out of the mix, we’re not talking about a whole lot of money. That $23,000 comes out of the small portion we get to work with,” Ervin said. “But if the alternative is eliminating programs or coaches, obviously that’s the last thing we want to do.”