2013 report: CIML's big spenders are cashing in

Des Moines Lincoln athletic director Phil Chia looks at the shiny buildings and the big bucks and sometimes wonders how he can compete with other schools.

In most instances, he can’t.

High schools in the Central Iowa Metropolitan League are ponying up for extravagant renovations and the top coaches in the state, leaving others, like Lincoln, at a competitive disadvantage.

The Des Moines Register, using open-records requests, examined the athletic department salaries of 17 out of the 18 CIML schools and found that those who spend the most tend to get results on the fields of play.

The 18th school, Dowling Catholic, which is private, declined to provide information requested by the Register.

“We’re going to do what we need to do to succeed and be more successful and do whatever it takes to make that happen,” Chia said. “Is it more of a struggle? There’s no question.”

It’s reminiscent of Major League Baseball, where the frugal Athletics are expected to compete with the free-spending Yankees. It’s also an ongoing issue that is affecting high schools throughout the country. And it’s hit home in one of Iowa’s biggest conferences.

“I think it’s pretty widespread in every state,” said Bob Gardner, the executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “You’ve got schools that are well-financed and others who are struggling to get by.”

Money matters

Some of the CIML’s top programs boast not only bigger staffs with more money, but more resources. The discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots is hard to miss.

During 2012-13, Ankeny operated with the highest payroll total in the CIML at $792,528, more than three times what Des Moines Hoover spent at $248,158. Four of Des Moines’ five public schools had the lowest payroll amounts in the league.

Suburban Des Moines schools are the six biggest spenders, a reflection not so much of their enrollments than of their thriving property tax bases. That money is being invested in state-of-the-art facilities and in a much larger stable of coaches.

The issue made headlines recently in Mason City — which had the CIML’s 13th-biggest payroll total at $329,701, ahead of only four Des Moines schools. But even that amount of spending was felt to be too much in a school system experiencing declining enrollment and shrinking property tax revenue.

The school administration wanted to trim nine assistant high school coaching positions, but the school board voted that down Monday. Assistant coaches in Mason City make between $2,300 and $3,800 per season.

While schools like Mason City struggle for ways to pay for things, some coaches are taking money out of their own pockets.

East soccer coach Derek Lounsberry estimates that over the course of a season, he’ll spend $4,000 of his own money. Most of his $4,596 coaching paycheck will go toward equipment such as cleats, socks, nets and other small expenses that the school often can’t afford.

“It’s just a way to keep kids going and keep our program in the right direction,” Lounsberry said.

Some of his money also goes toward duties away from the field. Inside his house, Lounsberry keeps a closet full of suits that he’s purchased over the years to loan players for graduation, prom and other big occasions.

He’s not the only one. North football coach Keith HanksSr. has provided meals and even housing to players at times. He said he sees himself as part parent, part mentor and part friend to his athletes.

“It’s not just X’s and O’s,” Hanks said.

The problems that many coaches at the poorer-financed schools face aren’t issues with their suburban counterparts, where extra staff members are in abundance.

Urbandale athletic director Bill Watson’s staff includes a secretary, assistant athletic director and stadium and performing arts center manager. Valley activities director Brad Rose also has an assistant to go along with an athletic custodian, whose responsibilities include cutting the grass on the baseball and softball fields.

There’s more.

Administrators at Waukee, Johnston and Indianola are provided with a cell phone at school expense.

“It all boils down to making do with what you’ve got,” Hoover athletic director Mel GreenJr. said. “We’ve been asked to do more with less.”

It isn’t easy and it’s rarely been successful for small-budget schools. The Des Moines Register all-sports standings ranks schools based on points accumulated at state tournaments. The four biggest CIML spenders — Ankeny, Valley, Johnston and Southeast Polk — ranked fourth, third, 15th and 16th among large schools in 2011-12. Of the lowest-spending CIML schools — Roosevelt, Lincoln, North and Hoover — only Lincoln cracked the top 25.

Ankeny won football, baseball and softball titles in 2012. The city’s fortunes may soon change, of course, as a new high school opens in the fall to effectively split that city’s pool of talent. Even so, the athletic budgets of the two Ankeny schools figure to be more on par with Indianola than, say, Marshalltown.

Is it a level playing field? Some think not.

“You’re going to have some unevenness, obviously,” Green said.

Football is key

If there is one sport that shows the importance placed on spending among CIML schools, it’s football.

The top 10 paid coaches had teams finish the 2012 season with winning records. Six of the seven lowest-paid coaches failed to post a winning record.

The individual dollar figures are modest, however.

Ankeny coach Jerry Pezzetti, who led the Hawks to an undefeated season and the Class4-A championship, claimed the fifth-highest salary among the schools. During the championship season, Pezzetti made $6,913.

Valley coach Gary Swenson, who has guided the Tigers to five state championships and accumulated more than 300 victories, is paid the highest of all, making $8,392. Swenson made $3,302 more than Ottumwa football coach Zach Pfantz, the lowest-paid coach football coach in the CIML. Swenson makes an additional $8,466 as Valley’s fitness director.

“It doesn’t really bother me,” Pfantz said. “I do this because I love it. I love coaching, and I love being around the kids.”

Rose said Swenson isn’t just being paid for victories. Rose said his salary reflects the ongoing demands and pressures placed on football coaches with more commitments to recruiting, camps and preparation.

“I think we’re getting a heck of a product for the price,” Rose said.

Each of the five football coaches in the Des Moines school district makes the same amount — $6,319, or 75 percent of what Swenson earns.

“You don’t coach in the Des Moines inner cities for the money,” Hanks said.

Pfantz said he doesn’t let the resources of other schools bother him. But he has heard the complaints of fellow coaches.

“There’s a lot of disparity in (Class) 4-A,” Pfantz said. “You can sit around and worry about that, but that’s not productive.”

Boosters, resources

The programs that are headed upward have found success with their wallets.

Last basketball season, Waukee debuted its renovated fieldhouse that cost nearly $15million. The 2,500-seat gym includes a video board that shows 15 to 20 instant replays a game, highlight films and commercials.

Just this year, Valley unveiled a renovated weight room that rivals many small colleges’ facilities.

“If you’re going to be competitive at the highest level … you have to have a solid, very good and extensive strength and conditioning program,” Waukee athletic director Jim Duea said. “And if you’re going to have one, then you have to have the facility that will allow you to do all the things that you need.”

Some have the resources, while others don’t. According to the Valley Tiger Booster Club website, $63,318 was contributed from the club to the school’s athletic programs during the 2011-12 school year.

Dowling Catholic, whose spending certainly would be in the upper echelon of the CIML, has a similar donor program called the Dowling Club. There are five levels, according to the school’s website. The three most-expensive levels cost $500, $300 and $150.

Gardner, of the National Federation of State High School Associations, said the spending imbalance can create a competitive imbalance.

“Some schools are located in areas where there’s great support for their programs, high attendance for their events and they make good money on game receipts. And other schools are located in areas where there is little support for their contests and they don’t make money at the gate to speak of and have to resort to other methods to finance their programs,” he said.

Chia said schools like his, which don’t have the resources of a big-time booster program, have to look for other ways to raise money.

Lincoln was able to open what Chia calls the school’s first real weight room this year. Chia said the school was able to piece together parts of the estimated $40,000 project through fundraising projects over the course of several years.

Next on his list: New FieldTurf along with other renovations at the school’s football field. It’s all part of trying to keep up with the other programs.

“It’s almost reflective of what you’re seeing in college athletics,” Waukee football coach Scott Carlson said.

In college football, the biggest, shiniest programs have the most success. In the CIML, it isn’t much different.

Carlson said that coaches and schools are now having to sell themselves to students as they get ready for high school.

“I think high school kids, clearly, especially in this part of the state, they do pay attention to those things,” Carlson said.

Schools are, too.

Every few years, the heads of the CIML athletic departments are asked to participate in a survey put together by Urbandale’s Watson, who distributes the results to the member schools.

Some of the questions on the survey ask about salaries and staff size.

“I think it’s something that all of us from time to time have to look at,” Watson said.

Gardner said it’s being examined on a national level with discussions about how to fix the disparity.

“We don’t have any desire to drag down anybody that’s doing well,” Gardner said. “We’d like to lift those that are on the other end who are not succeeding.”

Many of the state’s coaches double as teachers, and they have accepted the fact that regardless of where they go, money isn’t what drives them.

“If you’re coaching in high school and doing it for the money, you’re not going to last very long,” Carlson said.

Chia said he’s not using resources as an excuse for limited success.

“It can be done,” Chia said. “We’re going to do what we need to do and try to move forward. Certainly, there are challenges there that I think other districts don’t have.”

Pfantz, whose team played Valley and Dowling Catholic last season, got to see first-hand how big of a gap there is.

“Can we ever get to that level? I don’t know,” Pfantz said. “If we do things the right way, I sure hope we can experience some type of success.”

— Mark Emmert contributed to this report.

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