Districts turn to fees to pay for activities

More local school districts have implemented or increased pay-to-participate fees as budgets tighten and voters have said no to property tax requests.

After its operating levy request failed in November, Northeastern Local Schools board members will likely vote on pay-to-participate fees in January for its spring season for all middle school and high school extracurricular activities. Superintendent Lou Kramer said he expects board members will approve the fees, but for how much or for which activities isn’t decided.

Several other public schools, including Greenon, Mechanicsburg and Cedarville, have instituted or raised fees since the beginning of last school year. One private school, Catholic Central, also raised its rate for high school students this year.

“It’s just a sign of the times,” Kenton Ridge High School Athletic Director Kris Spriggs said.

Thirteen school districts in Clark and Champaign counties currently have some type of pay-to-participate program with fees ranging from $20 to $250 per sport. Some districts, like West Liberty-Salem and Triad, have transportation fees and some like Graham Local Schools also charge to join marching band and plays.

Northeastern had been one of the four districts in the two-county area that hadn’t implemented a pay-to-participate program. The others without fees are Clark-Shawnee, Southeastern and Urbana.

According to a recent survey by the Ohio High School Athletic Association, of the 548 schools that responded, 48 percent charged the fees. Of those schools, 63 percent in Southwest Ohio reported having some type of pay-to-participate program, with an average fee of $141 per sport.

A 2012 survey of school treasurers performed by the Ohio School Board Association said 19 percent of schools implemented pay-to-participate fees this year for extracurricular activities in some fashion.

“They believe (an extracurricular activity) goes on to make a difference — it helps student achievement and a well-rounded experience. It’s part of the enrichment of public education,” said Rick Lewis, the executive director of the association.

But, Lewis said, schools must balance paying for academics with tighter budgets and placing the burden on the parents for athletics and other activities.

“Do you cut funding for the extracurricular or do you cut funding for academic programs? Those become some of your choices,” Lewis said.

Last year, Northeastern eliminated 29 positions for a total savings of nearly $1 million, but its forecasts still project operating budget deficits in 2015.

The district’s 1 percent annual income tax to pay for operating expenses in November was voted down handily with nearly 60 percent of voters against the levy.

So the district might implement pay-to-participate for all extracurricular activities, as well as limit or eliminate drug testing at their middle schools and high schools, field trips and expenditures for professional development.

The district’s Board of Education held an Athletic Council Sub-committee meeting on Thursday to discuss the pay-to-participate program. They’ll also discuss possibly implementing fees for activities like band.

Kramer said he’s disappointed about implementing pay-to-participate because participation in extracurricular activities has been a strength over the years.

“Even though it was a strength, it comes at a particular cost,” Kramer said. “We’re trying to be measured and make good financial decisions, too, to help offset some of those costs.”

Kramer said the board will weigh the fees against what others are charging in the area, but said it won’t be as high as other school districts in Warren and Butler counties, where fees range anywhere from $400 to $500.

Spriggs and Northeastern Athletic Director Chad Fyffe each said they’re hoping the fees doesn’t affect participation rates.

“It’s better than the alternative,” Fyffe said. “We’ll still be able to offer the activities that the kids have been accustomed to, which is the important part.”

Tecumseh has the highest fees for high school at $250 per sport and middle school at $125 per sport. They also have fees for other extracurricular activities.

“It’s tolerable,” said Tecumseh Athletic Director Craig Eier, “but if we went any higher, we’d be in trouble.”

Greenon began its program at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year and generated more than $40,300, including about $32,300 at the high school level. The money went to salaries for extracurricular activities, which used more than $331,700 from its general fund last school year. The athletic department also spent about $201,900 for equipment and supplies.

Mechanicsburg implemented its program this school year and generated about $9,000 during the fall sports season.

Even for schools without pay-to-participate fees, it’s always a possibility if budgets become tight.

The Ohio High School Athletic Association is concerned rising pay-to-participate fees could reduce participation numbers, but also increase specialization among athletes.

“We’d love to see kids play as many sports as possible,” said Tim Stried, its director of information services.

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