When Sebastian River High athletic director Michael Stutzke first heard about Pay-to-Participate at an athletic conference years ago, he thought it would be a good way to enhance “emerging sports,” those without enough history and tradition to ensure their survival on campus.
Then the national economy slumped, and Pay-to-Participate became less of an enhancer and more of a means for the survival of high school sports in Indian River County.
One other thing has become clear to Stutzke since the fee was established there in 2010: “It’s here, and it’s here to stay.”
Add Brevard to “here.” The local school board approved plans on Tuesday to charge public middle and high school students a fee to participate in sports beginning in the fall. Neighboring counties to the north and south already have the system in place, though they vary in their operation.
The first difference is in the cost. Indian River charges each athlete $65. Volusia County schools charge $75 for a first sport and $100 for students who play multiple sports. Brevard athletes will pay $100 to play one sport or $150 if playing multiple sports, though there will be reduced fees based on financial status.
Perhaps more significantly is the use and method of collection for the money. Brevard’s plan has the school system using the money as part of an overall package to help erase a $30 million deficit. School system officials indicated the money will partially offset supplements paid to coaches.
Not so to the north and south, where funds are collected by athletic directors or coaches.
“Each school is responsible for collecting that fee, and all the money that they collect stays at the school to help run their programs,” said Gary Marks, athletic director for Volusia County. “The principals have pretty wide discretion on what they spend it for.”
In Volusia, the money essentially replaced funds that once came directly from the school system to fund high school sports. That money was the equivalent of equalization money once given to Brevard schools that didn’t meet a budget baseline via their own sports revenue. Equalization money was eliminated two years ago.
Stutzke said Sebastian River has come to use the money mostly for transportation.
“Between transportation and officials, that’s what really eats away at one’s budget,” he said. “That’s what makes it so palatable to our parents. They know where the money is going.”
He has never been called or visited in his office by a parent questioning the reason for the charge. Furthermore, both Stutske and Marks said participation has not been significantly affected.
“We looked at it very closely, and we did not have a dropoff in participation,” Stutzke said. About 47 percent of the students at Sebastian River qualify for free or reduced lunch, and he said flexibility in paying the sports participation fee has smoothed the process for parents with lesser financial means.
Marks said the same thing for Volusia’s experience.
“There was quite an effort made to make sure that we had scholarship dollars that the schools could access, because some schools have the resources and really aren’t going to have an issue with the students paying that fee,” he said. “but other schools — just because of their socioeconomic makeup, location in the district — might have a problem with some of their kids paying.”
Unlike Brevard’s plan to prevent outsiders from paying participation fees directly for specific students or groups of students, neither neighboring county has taken that approach. Volusia schools have taken particular advantage of businesses interested in funding scholarship money to pay the fees for those unable to pay themselves.
“Our schools worked really hard to make sure that businesses were on board,” Marks said. “We made a commitment that we weren’t going to have students not participating because of this fee.”
Beth Thedy, Brevard assistant superintendent for student services, said last month any outside money would go to the school system to lower the fee for all students rather than allowing targeted help that could be used to lure talented athletes from opposing schools.
“Let’s say some community member raised $100,000 to help. We would look at the $100,000 and cut the fee for each student so we avoid trouble with impermissible benefits and avoid any trouble with (the FHSAA).”
While the FHSAA does prohibit recruiting students to play sports, it does not have rules against individuals or groups paying participation fees. Neither Volusia nor Indian River has restricted outside help because of a fear of potential recruiting.
“I don’t see that. We have enough safeguards in place, and there are rules that govern recruiting,” Marks said. “That, I don’t see as an issue at all.
“It definitely has not come up at all.”
Comparing Brevard County Pay-to-Participate to neighbors
|Fees||$100 one sport, $150 for 2+||$75 one sport, $100 for 2+||$65|
|Money paid to||School board budget||Fund at each school, used at discrection of principal||Fund at each school, used as needed|
|Fee deadlines||Fall: Sept. 15
Winter: Nov. 15
Spring: Feb. 15
|Before first competition||Before first competition|
|Can others sponsor athletes?||No||Yes||Yes|
|Disadvantaged students||Reduced fees||Scholarships||“No student will be turned away”|
|Refunds||Due to being cut, due to
|Not after first competition||None|