Sports and money have always made for strange bedfellows. But through the years, our society has done an admirable job of shielding scholastic sports from the almighty dollar.
Well, my friends, the times they are a changing.
Over the past decade or so, the topic of ‘pay to play’ has, for the most part, remained on the periphery of Lebanon County scholastic athletics. But it appears that during the next few years, many local school boards will be faced with difficult decisions about how to fund extra-curricular activities like sports.
Currently at Elco, the concept of ‘pay to play’, or activity fees, is being bantered about. While still in the discussion stage at mainly the administrative level, ‘pay for play’ is being examined as a viable option to off-set the increasing costs of doing the business of sports.
Reportedly, it has stirred up somewhat of a lukewarm debate within the school district, but apparently little more than the inevitable conflict brought upon by change.
“No, it is not imminent,” said David Zuilkoski, who’s been Elco’s superintendent for the past ten months. “What is imminent is looking at an activity fee. That will always be on the table. The state is holding hundreds of thousands of dollars for a school we built. If I had the money, I wouldn’t have to look other places.
“We’re in a revenue generating search at Elco,” Zuilkoski continued. “But the first thing we’re going to do is cut costs.”
The concept of ‘pay to play’ is certainly not a new one on the community, club and traveling team levels – whether it be in the from of direct fees or fund-raising activities. But for decades, scholastic sports have been paid for by dollars collected as school taxes, save for certain medical, equipment and training costs.
In a broad sense, what ‘pay to play’ would involve would be student-athletes – or their parents – plunking down one-time fees to participate in sports. The activity fee would vary based on the expenses of that sport, the number of student-athletes in any given family and theoretically by a family’s financial ability to pay, among other factors.
As a point of reference, athletes would pay anywhere from $20 to $100 per activity, depending upon those factors.
“Doug (athletic director Bohannon) did a presentation on activity fees two years ago,” said Zuilkoski. “What the school board has said is cut costs and raise revenue.
“What we have to do is look at how to educate our students in a fiscally responsible manner,” added Zuilkoski. “I hate to put money on the backs of our student-athletes. I think it’s our job as a community to fund education. When expenses out reach revenue, you have to look for alternate methods.”
It should be noted that Zuilkoski came from a school district – West Shore, which includes Cedar Cliff and Red Land High Schools – where ‘pay to play’ is currently being utilized. Zuilkoski pays $100 per season for his son to participate in scholastic swimming.
West Shore is one of a handful of school districts throughout District Three which have instituted ‘pay to play’ policies.
“There are a number of different scenarios to consider,” said Zuilkoski. “At West Shore, it started out as a one-time fee across the board and it turned into a tier-system. There’s not a one-size-fits-all fee.
“For me personally, it goes from the outside in,” added Zuilkoski. “You always look for sources outside before we charge our student-athletes. Our primary job is to teach our kids. I’m a huge supporter of athletics. I value extra-curricular activities.”
The most obvious concern with ‘pay to play’ is that it has the power to be financially discriminatory and exclusionary. Sports have always been the great equalizer, in that participation and performance were always based on ability, preparation and work ethic.
‘Pay to play’ will undoubtedly hinder the number of student-athletes participating in any given sport, possibly the number of sports a student-athlete might go out for and could ultimately determine whether or not an individual gets involved with scholastic athletics at all.
“Sure they could,” conceded Zuilkoski. “There’s research out on that. There’s a small percentage of students who won’t play at all. Some can’t afford it. It becomes not a choice not to play, but an inability not to play.”
Like many school districts, Elco has been financially affected by the rising costs of athletics and by the proliferation of cyber schools.
“The amount of money being raised by taxes does not cover costs in most districts,” said Zuilkoski. “You’re going to hear a lot of talk about how districts can make money in the future. It’s just the financial situation we’re in. A lot of superintendents are pushing to get cyber charges changed. If you take your child to a cyber school, we have to pay for it. We’re providing an education here. We need to keep the money here in the district.”
Some other possible sources of funding for athletics include: merchandising fees or naming rights; usage fees for facilities; and product advertising on team uniforms, and on banners within stadiums or on playing fields.
“Athletics help create the well-rounded individual,” said Zuilkoski. “You’re going to reinforce what you learned in the classroom. Work ethic, team work, commitment. It also teaches you about wins and losses.”
And now dollars and cents.