The wrestling team at North Idaho College is one of the best in the nation, and the men’s basketball team is a consistent winner.
But some taxpayers and college trustees are wondering whether all that athletic talent is worth the cost.
Less than 10 percent of the student body participates in varsity sports, but athletes get 84 percent of the money set aside for tuition waivers.
Some of the athletes supported by local taxpayers come from as far as Tennessee, Virginia and Bulgaria.
The varsity teams spent $121,528 on travel alone last year - an amount being questioned given NIC’s status as a community college.
The basketball team flew to Salt Lake City. The wrestling team flew to Las Vegas and Bismarck, N.D.
“I hate to single out athletics,” said board member Sue Thilo. “We have an obligation to look at everything. This seems to be the one that’s coming to the top.”
Concern over athletic spending hit the surface at a Wednesday meeting when the board was scheduled to approve next year’s budget. At a time when taxpayers want the college to hold the line on its budget, financial aid for athletes is under scrutiny.
The proposed $604,535 athletic budget amounts to 3 percent of the total $18.7 million 1995-96 college budget. But the athletic budget is increasing by almost 9 percent, more than the average increase for academic programs.
In addition, the budget for tuition and fee waivers for athletic students is increasing by 64 percent, while waivers doled out by other departments are frozen.
Similar grants for foreign exchange students were eliminated in 1992.
The trustees postponed approving the budget, and the college is putting together a committee to discuss the role of athletics at NIC. That committee will include taxpayers, students and faculty members.
In the short term, the attention could mean a dent in the athletic department’s maintenance and operation budget - more than half of which goes to travel.
In the long term, it could mean dropping certain varsity sports or switching to an athletic league closer to home.
Athletic Director Jim Headley admits that the spotlight on his department’s budget makes him a little nervous, but he says the questions are legitimate.
“It’s a philosophical question,” he said Thursday. “If you believe athletics is a part of a total learning experience, then you should have a quality program.”
Some faculty members believe that money spent on traveling and recruiting good players should go toward computers or other programs.
“Through the executive committee, specific faculty have brought concerns questioning the equity between something in their budget and the athletic department’s,” said Bill Richards, head of the faculty council.
One question often revolves around the college’s membership in the Scenic West Athletic Conference, which means teams must travel to Colorado, Utah, Southern Idaho, Canada and Montana to compete.
Belonging to a local conference, “would lead to local recruiting and would lead to less out-of-state waivers,” Richards said.
But it would also lead to less interesting games, Headley said. The Scenic West conference is one of the most competitive for junior colleges.
Though the athletic department doesn’t have a recruiting budget, it does have a reputation and the ability to draw students from all over the country.
Out of the 146 students enrolled in varsity sports last spring, 72 were from out of state.
In past years, Headley said, the department has not had enough money budgeted for tuition fees and waivers to keep up with increases in out-of-state tuition and fees. The department went over its $198,000 budget for such student assistance by $96,583 last year.
Dean of Students David Lindsay said he froze tuition and fee waivers for his department to save money. “I chose not to argue that case this year.
Academic scholarships also are available from the private NIC Foundation.
Last year, the foundation paid for 146 scholarships totaling $76,956.
Headley and other college officials say the focus on athletics is part of the larger issue of rising property taxes in Kootenai County.
“It’s an issue now because of the mood of the community toward taxes, period,” Headley said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Graphic: NIC tuition and fee waivers
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: YOU MAKE THE CALL Should taxpayers help support a top-notch athletic department at North Idaho College, even if it means recruiting players from out of state? We’d like to hear your views on the subject. Please call Cityline at (208) 765-8811 and enter Category 9865. Please leave a brief message, your name and a phone number. A reporter will call some who phone.