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Paying to play

Sun., March 21, 2010

Cash-strapped schools weigh fees for extracurricular activities

Looming budget cuts are prompting a closer look at the costs of extracurricular activities in area public schools.

Eliminating sports with low participation or implementing fees are among school officials’ options for cost savings, but decisions will have to wait until the Legislature’s special session has ended and the community has a chance to weigh in.

A study recently released by Spokane Public Schools analyzed the costs of athletic and nonathletic activities in the school district; compared statewide Associated Student Body (ASB) and participation fees; and evaluated sports offerings in various districts.

“Overall, it was interesting to discover how other communities across the state have found ways to keep the extracurricular programs they quite clearly value so much,” said Staci Vesneske, Spokane Public Schools assistant superintendent.

Spokane and Central Valley districts offer 13 sports. Three other districts in the statewide study offered 14, but the other 15 districts all had fewer options. Of the 20 largest districts, only Spokane and Central Valley offered slow-pitch softball.

About half the school districts surveyed offered swimming and bowling, while the Eastern Washington schools did not.

In the Spokane area’s two largest districts, golf and gymnastics have the fewest participants, data showed.

When Spokane Public Schools evaluated its costs per sport, per student, gymnastics came up again – basketball, football and gymnastics are the most expensive athletic activities, the recent study revealed. Tennis is the cheapest for the district.

But football players and gymnasts pay less out-of-pocket than other athletes.

Average out-of-pocket expenses for the sports range from $185 to $500 per year to cover the cost of shoes, warm-ups and practice T-shirts or jerseys, and other gear, according to the study. Uniforms and equipment are provided by the schools.

Golf, fast-pitch and slow-pitch softball were the most expensive for students, on average.

The cost varies substantially from district to district and even from student to student. For example, most extracurricular activities don’t require a specific brand of shoes. In golf, clubs are available through the school but students can choose to buy their own. And warm-ups sometimes are considered part of the uniform – as is the case in Spokane Public Schools – so no student is required to buy them.

“In most of the sports, the coaches purchase a set of team warm-ups that are reused year-to-year,” said Jeff Norton, Lewis and Clark High School athletic director.

In the nonathletic category, Spokane Public Schools found that cheerleading was the most expensive extracurricular activity for the district as well as the students, according to the study. Cheerleaders participate in activities throughout the year and must pay for warm-ups, hair bows, undergarments and shoes – $550 per person, per year, on average.

Debate and yearbook were second and third most expensive for costs incurred by the district, the study showed. The least expensive for the district was orchestra.

Out-of-pocket expenses for nonathletic activities averaged between $109 and $550.

After cheerleading, the most expensive activity for students is concert band, then orchestra. Yearbook costs $28 at one school, but nothing at all the others.

Transportation is not included in any of the extracurricular activity costs.

So far, the state’s three largest districts – Seattle, Spokane and Tacoma – have not gone to a pay-to-play system in high schools, charging students for extracurricular activities. But to keep all the programs they offer, school boards may find it necessary to charge some type of fee, school officials say.

Central Valley School District’s board will ask for the community’s input at a forum this week about charging a participation fee of $55 per sport or activity in the high schools, officials said. The district already has introduced a participation fee for middle school football rather than cut that program. Several other options will also be brought forward at the forum.

Participation fees in high schools throughout the state range from $3 to $125 per student.

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