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Athletics: Where Budget Balancers Fear to Tread?

With Texas public schools facing cuts of as much as $10 billion in state funding, predictions of the consequences have been dire: teacher layoffs, bigger class sizes, fewer instructional days. One topic conspicuously absent from the conversation: athletics.

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With Texas public schools facing cuts of as much as $10 billion in state funding, predictions of the consequences have been dire: teacher layoffs in the six figures, bigger class sizes, fewer instructional days, slashed support for at-risk students. One topic conspicuously absent from the conversation: athletics. Are lawmakers and school boards fearful of treading on the hallowed turf of high school football?

Perhaps, but the unhappy answer, at least for gridiron lovers, is that nothing is safe — not even sports in the land of Taj Mahal stadiums. And despite the spendthrift reputation of Texas high school football programs, districts have less money to save in eliminating them than you might think.

That’s because of the way the state structures athletics programs in public schools. In Texas, a recently changed law allows students who play an after-school sport to receive class credit for practicing during school hours. If kids are occupied during the school day with an athletic period and a district decides to eliminate the sport they play, they still must go somewhere — and that means using up additional resources finding extra classrooms and teachers.

"You take 100 kids and instead of one coach you have four teachers, because you've only got a class size of about 24 or 28, so you don't save much money by eliminating the sport if you still have kids in the program," says Tim Carroll, spokesman for Allen Independent School District, a northern exurb of Dallas.

Defenders of public school athletics also point out that coaching is rarely a full-time job. Many coaches, if they aren’t employed in the administrative role of athletic directors, are also teachers. They receive stipends, usually a few thousand dollars a year, to compensate for the extra time they spend outside of the classroom with their teams. Doing away with or reducing the extra money teachers receive for time spent coaching — and running other activities like yearbook, band and art — is likely as schools look at what they can and can’t afford, says Gwendolyn Santiago, the executive director of the Texas Association of School Business Officials.

According to data from the Texas Education Agency, in the 2009-10 school year, about 2.4 percent of districts’ general operating expenses were spent on extracurricular activities, including athletics. That comes out to about $157 per student. In comparison, districts spent $787 per student on academic support programs for underachieving children and $274 per student spent on bilingual and ESL education.

In San Antonio’s Northside ISD, the state’s fourth largest district, Athletics Director Stan Laing says his department has already cut 8 percent of its budget to get through the remainder of the school year. For next year, the district may cut back on travel and equipment expenses and, yes, stipends. But Laing says the district will investigate how it could generate more revenue through sporting events, and he says that money isn’t necessarily poured back into athletics. 

 “All that money — it doesn't come back to athletics. It goes into the general fund, and then obviously those monies are used where needed anywhere in the district,” he says. That's typical in districts across the state.

Charging students fees for equipment and uniforms and getting rid of sports programs with limited participation are other options for districts. But schools will have to waive those fees for students who can’t afford them — not a small consideration in Texas, where almost 60 percent of students qualify as economically disadvantaged.

As for eliminating programs, schools will have to be very careful to make sure they don’t violate Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex educational programs and activities, including sports. When schools make broad funding reductions across sports programs, they need to ensure that they aren’t creating inequalities or exacerbating existing ones between the sexes, says Neena Chaudhry, a lawyer who handles Title IX issues with the National Women’s Law Center, or else they may find themselves with a lawsuit on their hands — like Florida did in 2009, when parents sued after the state high school sports association reduced the number of games scheduled for all sports except football. Their case has since been settled out of court.

“If you make cuts across the board, in many districts it's still a problem because girls are starting at a disadvantage,” she says.

If schools are tempted to insulate football from the budget crisis, it’s because the sport is one of the few, and in many cases only, that brings in money for districts through sales of tickets to games, sponsorships and concessions. That can be enough revenue to sustain it and other programs, according to Santiago. And though palatial stadiums like the $60 million one Allen ISD recently began building contribute to the perception that schools are overspending on sports programs, they are financed through bond initiatives, separate from the money districts must divvy up among programs each year. (Allen’s was part of a $120 million package that passed 63 percent to 37 percent in 2009.) 

Districts won’t know how the budget cuts will hit them or how badly until the end of the legislative session. But if they go as deep as $10 billion, it’s likely no program will escape unscathed. “If the Legislature adopted the initial figures from the House, then all programs would be under scrutiny,” says Kelli Durham, a spokeswoman for Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Harris County, the third largest district in the state. “Because it would take more than eliminating one program to make the cuts.”

It’s a refrain parents, teachers and students are hearing across the state — and an unpleasant forecast of the future. 

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