Athletic cuts

Ann Arbor News, June 12, 2006

Boosters, coaches go to bat for high school athletics
By ROB HOFFMAN
News Sports Reporter 

Dottie Davis won't take it easy this Father's Day weekend.

She can't. The coach of Huron High School's softball team has other obligations.

Davis, her players, their parents and other volunteers run the Ann Arbor Summer Classic, an annual youth softball tournament that is expected to draw 46 teams from Michigan and Ohio.

As much fun as it is, it also requires a lot of hard work every year, Davis says.

And it's absolutely critical to her high school softball team's bottom line. The tournament traditionally raises about $10,000 that's used to purchase items such as $300 softball bats, new uniforms, turf maintenance equipment, outfield wind screens and other necessities that the team would otherwise have to do without.

The alternative would be to ask each player who wanted to play on the team to fork over $500 to $1,000 at the beginning of the season.

"If we didn't have the tournament, we'd be stuck," Davis said.

All over Ann Arbor, it's a situation that has become familiar in recent years to coaches, prep athletes and their parents. With the school district footing the bill only for coaches' salaries, game officials and transportation, teams must raise funds or impose participation fees of up to several hundred dollars to cover the cost of uniforms, equipment and other basic needs.

The equipment needs vary from team to team, but they can frequently be financially onerous. Football teams must spend thousands of dollars a year to replace worn out uniforms, pads and helmets. Cross country and track teams must dig into their bank accounts to replace or update the computers and timing software used to calculate finishes down to hundredths of a second. Swim teams sometimes have to spend $1,000 or more to replace an electronic touch pad in their pools.

Now, because of the Ann Arbor school district's proposal to handle a districtwide budget deficit by cutting more than 20 percent from the athletic budgets at its two major high schools, those private funds appear to be increasingly important.

And the cuts, which the school board will vote on later this month, have those involved in athletics plenty worried. Though backers of the cuts say they're necessary to leave classroom funding comparatively unaffected, opponents say the budget ax has hit the Pioneer and Huron athletic departments with disproportionate force.

"Most of us have foreseen this for some time," said Betsy Petoskey, president of the Pioneer Booster Club. "Athletics are easy to cut. You can see the dollars. And you don't have to impact the classroom."

Besides the across-the-board 10 percent cut in athletic department funding, the district is eliminating the position of assistant athletic director and the equivalent of one full-time secretary - which means the reductions will actually exceed 20 percent (or about $260,000) of each school's annual $1.3 million athletic budget.

"I'm not opposed to cuts," said Pioneer freshman football coach Matt Fox, who has spoken out against the scale of the reductions at school board meetings. "But it's almost like it's piling on."

Pioneer athletic director Lorin Cartwright and Huron's Bill Blakemore have not fully disclosed how they will absorb the cuts in next year's budget. But many expect that coaches will be let go and several JV and freshman teams will be either combined or eliminated.

"This will have an impact," said Helen Miller, president of Huron's booster club. "Fewer students will play athletics at Huron High School."

But school board member Glenn Nelson says athletic backers may be overreacting with what he called the "Washington Monument" scenario often used to illustrate gamesmanship in the federal government. For example, announced cuts might cause Department of Interior administrators to announce that the Washington Monument would have to close, creating a public outcry that would cause lawmakers to back down. In actuality, nothing as drastic would have been necessary.

Nonetheless, Nelson - who is "withholding judgment" until the board's expected vote on the budget June 21 - agrees that the district's financial predicament will make life more difficult for the athletic departments.

"The cuts are real," he said. "One doesn't get $6.5 million out of the budget without having any kind of effect. Something of value is going to be cut from students."

As much as fellow board member Deb Mexicotte believes that extracurricular activities such as sports benefit students and the community, she said the district has federal and state educational mandates that make much of the classroom money untouchable.

"It's a tough row to hoe right now," she said.

The school booster clubs at both high schools expect the impact of the athletic cuts to land squarely on them.

The organizations have gained importance in recent years as the district's share of contributions to prep teams has dwindled. When she first started coaching softball at Huron in 1980, Davis said she had an annual budget for equipment and supplies that she couldn't spend fast enough.

Now the booster clubs must raise money for those items through donations, athletes' participation fees, concession stand sales, the marketing of school merchandise and fundraising events such as banquets and car washes.

Last year, the Pioneer boosters donated $50,000 toward the construction of two tennis courts at the high school. The Huron booster club helped pay for a $4,500 professional costume for the school's new mascot, R. Rat.

"I don't think the athletic program could exist without parent and volunteer fundraisers," said Huron's Miller.

According to the 990 tax forms that the booster clubs are required to file with the IRS to preserve their non-profit status, the Huron booster club had revenue of $56,597 and expenses of $53,902 in 2004 - out of which $35,934 was spent on equipment, uniforms and supplies. Pioneer's booster club had revenues of $121,929 and spent $91,955 - out of which $56,015 went towards uniforms and supplies and another $26,969 was spent on travel and camps for athletes.

Pioneer, which has a less centralized booster club, also has separate booster organizations focused on particular sports. The Pioneer boys lacrosse boosters, one of the few that have filed a recent 990 form, raised $26,895 and spent $34,919 in 2004.

Both Miller and Petoskey said their booster clubs could raise even more money from private donors if it weren't for the fact that the donors believe their contributions will go for naught.

"There are many supporters of Pioneer athletics and Huron athletics who would like to contribute more," Petoskey said. "But they don't, because they fear the district will cut back even more. It's affecting our fundraising."

Agreeing that it's a dilemma, Nelson nonetheless said it's up to the booster clubs to work with the district to prevent that from happening. The process of donating money to Ann Arbor prep programs should become more transparent, he said.

"We need them to develop procedures so that donors will have the impact where they want," he said.

Fox knows where the football team he coaches is having an impact: In the classroom. According to the district, 15 percent of Ann Arbor's high schoolers have grade-point averages below 2.0 on the 4.0 scale. Among the 67 freshman who played for Fox last fall, only two - or less than 3 percent of his players - fell below that threshold.

This year, the collective grade-point average for all Pioneer athletes was 3.42 - the highest since that statistic has been kept. Fox said the discipline learned by becoming part of a team, as well as the need to remain academically eligible, causes athletes to take school work seriously.

"They (district officials) haven't looked into how well athletics support academics before they made the cuts," he said.

Mexicotte said her biggest concern about the cuts is how both athletic departments will deal with a staffing cut to 2.5 full-time employees from the former 4.5 employees. Further complicating the staffing issue, Blakemore and Cartwright also serve as assistant principals with additional responsibilities outside the athletic department, including evaluating teachers.

"It's very thorny," she said. "4.5 to 2.5 is not insubstantial."

Besides the fact that coaches like her "are going to be ripping their hair out next year" because of the staffing shortage, Huron's Davis worries that the money crunch will eventually take its toll through the loss of coaches, volunteers and others who think that the district doesn't treat sports with respect.

"Pretty soon, everybody is going to be disappointed and disgusted," she said.

Rob Hoffman can be reached at rhoffman@annarbornews.com or 734-994-6814.