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Playing hardball 

Administrators justify sustaining school athletics while academic programs suffer

The tone of school administrators suggests they have run out of options to save money, but in the five biggest districts in the county, athletic programs are generally taking smaller hits than academic initiatives.

 

Lucia Mar Unified School District did cut its athletics budget about 10 percent, from $960,000 to roughly $860,000, but books and supplies took a hit of more than 40 percent, from $1.2 million to just over $700,000. Arroyo Grande High School lost 20 percent of its general fund, which affected programs across the board. Such programs as band and speech, for example, which are paid for by the general fund, took a 20 percent hit.

 

The district lost 95 teachers, and parents must pay at least $180 annually to bus their children to school, which prompted a community member at a March 12 LMUSD Budget Review Committee meeting to recommend, “While sports are considered a ‘sacred’ cow, maybe the district should consider setting them aside for three to four years. There is more money being spent on the weight room at Arroyo Grande High School than there is on science,” according to meeting notes.

 

Arroyo Grande High School Principal Ryan Pinkerton disagrees.

 

“If we can keep as many things that we can keep doing, of course we’re going to do that,” Pinkerton said. “Athletics is big with kids. It makes school fun for them.”

 

At his school, which is in LMUSD, Pinkerton said nearly half of the student body participates in a sport. He maintains there is no plan to cut any of the school’s teams for the upcoming school year, though the fund for athletics was cut nearly in half from $109,000 to $60,000.

 

“We’re just trying to provide all students with opportunities to be involved with the school. The more opportunities the better,” Pinkerton said.

 

To make up for the loss in athletics funding, the school will cut traveling expenses and rely more on contributions from parents and boosters, though the poor economy has complicated outreach.

 

The athletics budget for Paso Robles Joint Unified District was trimmed by 20 percent to $142,000, which Gary Hoskins, assistant superintendent of business for PRJUD, explained correlates with the 20 percent cut made to their special funds (categorical) budget. The Paso Robles school board recently met to consider shrinking many programs other than sports; among them, slashing Paso Robles High School’s popular Endeavour Academy science program in half. School officials do not anticipate cutting any sports teams, thanks to contributions from the Associated Student Body, but eliminating freshman sports is on the table.

 

Like Arroyo Grande High, Paso will reduce travel expenses, and in addition will charge a fee to transport teams, schedule more games of all sorts for home, and arrange more baseball double-hitters. But class sizes are expected to increase at the high school level to save an estimated $180,000. One of two librarians in the district and 51 teachers have been terminated, with dim prospects for rehiring.

 

Why should the schools devote so much effort to save sports in particular? Hoskins explained it’s “our community pride. A lot of people stay involved with the high school through athletics.” Middle schools in the district have lost all their athletics funding and are relying on boosters, who have managed to raise $30,000.

 

 For San Luis Coastal Unified School District, a basic aid district once secure from the budget havoc in Sacramento, there is uncertainty about what the state may cut to balance the budget. In basic aid school districts, per pupil property tax revenue exceeds a per pupil revenue limit and therefore the state does not provide much general purpose funding. Most, if not all, general purpose funding in such districts comes from local property tax.

 

“We don’t know how the state is going to take back funds yet. We would like to know how we’re being affected so we can start planning, but we don’t,” said Julie Lang, director of fiscal services for SLCUSD. “We’re in a waiting mode.”

 

SLCUSD Superintendent Ed Valentine said there are no proposed reductions in the athletic schedule, but there have been some cutbacks at the middle school level. For the time being, the district athletics budget sits at $965,000—a figure, he said, that raises eyebrows in times when districts are laying off teachers.

 

“When you’re talking about the budget and cuts, everything gets brought up and that includes sports and prioritizing,” he said. “Everything gets examined on a cost versus value manner.

 

“[Athletics] keep kids focused on school because they have that school connection,” he added.

 

It’s a pattern found at the other big school districts in the county.

 

Atascadero Unified School District lost more than $300,000 for books and supplies. The district plans to combine sports that have low participation and merge junior varsity and varsity contingents at the high school level.

 

Templeton Unified School District has not made many cuts to sports programs for the upcoming school year, superintendent Deborah Bowers said. “We’ve reduced pre-season games. Freshman football looks a little less extensive, but essentially we will run all of our programs.”

 

Instead TUSD will no longer provide bus services and class sizes will have to increase to save an estimated $750,000. Athletics took roughly a $20,000 hit.

 

Contact intern Omar Sanchez via the editor at econnolly@newtimesslo.com.

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