Pay-to-play fees could be banned in Ohio

The legislation is expected to be introduced this fall in the Statehouse, Secretary of State John Husted said.

Ten public school districts in Clark and Champaign counties brought in more than $400,000 in pay-to-play fees last school year, including about $134,000 at Northeastern and $99,000 at Tecumseh.

The fees locally range from $20 to $250 per sport. Some districts, like West Liberty-Salem and Triad, have transportation fees and others like Graham Local Schools also charge to join marching band and plays.

Extracurricular activities build character and are critical to success after school, Husted said, and research shows they are just as crucial as test scores.

“Sports or extracurricular activities, whether it’s band or choir, are places where you learn teamwork, where you learn how to follow the rules, where you learn character and grit and on and on,” said Husted, an All-American defensive back who played on a national championship football team at the University of Dayton in 1989.

But fees are often an impediment to lower- and middle-income students who wish to participate, Husted said. If fewer and fewer kids sign up for school activities, he said, but it’s crucial to their success, that’s a problem.

“We wouldn’t think of charging for biology class and we know it’s important,” Husted said. “Why would we charge for sports when we know that’s important?”

If the legislation is approved, it likely wouldn’t be implemented for a school year to allow districts to plan for the loss of revenue. It’s unclear if the legislation will offer state funding to replace the fees.

“For most schools, it’s less than 1 to 2 percent of their budget,” Husted said. “They’ll have to make it a financial priority … We’ve got to knock down these barriers.”

Last fall, an Ohio High School Athletic Association survey of 471 schools showed about 46 percent had some type of pay-to-play policy. The average fee in the Southwest District, which includes Clark and Champaign counties, was about $141.

Some local schools don’t have pay-to-play fees. Southeastern only charges a $10 drug testing fee annually.

The Springfield City School District eliminated play-to-play fees last year.

Springfield was in a financial position to make the move without hurting its educational programming, Springfield City School Board President Ed Leventhal said.

Most districts had added the fees because of financial reasons, he said.

“They don’t want extracurriculars or athletics impacting the educational program, which is our main mission,” he said.

But pay-to-play became a burden for many families in tough economic situations in Springfield, Leventhal said, possibly keeping them from joining.

During the 2012-13 school year, Springfield High School had about 950 athletes, including children who played multiple sports. Since the fees were eliminated last school year, about 1,200 children participated in activities, according to the district.

The school board has had several people thank them for eliminating both sport and band fees this year. The policy will be evaluated after three years, Leventhal said.

“From everything we’ve seen and heard, it’s dramatically increased participation levels,” he said.

The proposal to ban the fees is a good concept, Leventhal said, but he’s not sure what effect it would have on other districts’ budgets.

Tecumseh has the highest student costs in the area at $250 per sport for high school athletics, with a $375 family cap. The district will often work with families who need help paying, Tecumseh Athletic Director Craig Eier said.

“We don’t want kids not to participate because of money,” Eier said.

Clark-Shawnee School District collects about $30,000 per year from pay-to-participate fees, Superintendent Gregg Morris said.

The fees collected are sent to the school’s general fund and used to pay coaching salaries, Morris said. The district spends about $190,000 per year for coaching salaries.

Before the district’s new operating levy passed in May 2014, Clark-Shawnee charged about $220 for high school sports and $110 for middle school sports. The district lowered them before the last school year to $50 per sport for high school and $25 per sport for middle school. Students who play multiple sports get the third one free, Morris said.

“We don’t like having them, period,” Morris said. “But they’re a necessity in order to provide the opportunities we provide for students. If we didn’t provide those, there would be some instructional programs that would be affected.”

Morris would be supportive of the legislation banning fees if lawmakers provide additional funding to offset costs, but that’s typically not the case.

“We have a very lean general fund budget,” he said. “There isn’t money that’s unaccounted for, so something would have to be reduced.”

The legislation is being championed by Ohio Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, a former high school football coach, said State Rep. Kyle Koehler, R-Springfield.

Koehler said he wants to see the legislation, including any budget implications, before deciding how to vote on it. The costs for athletics have increased dramatically over the past 25 years, he said. As an athlete at Catholic Central, he said he likely never traveled farther than eastern Miami County.

“If we do away with pay-to-play completely, I’m afraid some people will think that sports is somehow free,” Koehler said. “In the end, no matter what, it’s got to be paid for by somebody, whether it’s the actual athlete or the taxpayers from the school district or funding from the state level. Some way along the line, it has to be paid for.”

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