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Can School Sports Survive the Bad Economy?

We have been receiving a lot of mixed messages about the cost of school sports these days.

On the one hand, schools throughout the country are building expensive synthetic turf fields and twenty-thousand seat stadiums. On the other hand, we keep reading that schools are going broke and may have to cut their sports programs. 100 dollar bills

Most of the time the schools that say their sports programs are about to fall victim to the budget ax seem to end up getting saved at the last minute. The whole thing can become background noise.

In just the past few months, we've seen the following:

  • The New York City public schools spent five million dollars to make the Herbert Lehman High School athletic field playable. There's only one problem. The field is only 80 yards long. People aren't too happy about this in New York. However, the next time you hear New Yorkers say that funds are tight, you may not be inclined to believe them. After all, they invested five million dollars in a practice field!
  • The Sacramento public schools spent five months threatening to cancel all sports due to a lack of funding.  Sports are saved when a minor league baseball team closes the budge gap.
  • Threatening cuts, the Grand Rapids, Michigan public schools end up keeping them, but only by making cuts at the JV level.  Not exactly a save for all the athletes who no longer get to play school sports.

Reality check

School district facility funds and bond funds do not generally come from a school or district's regular athletic budget. Thus, a district or a school can be severely under-funded, and still have some maintenance or upgrades done. Similarly, poor areas in cities may be under-funded, and still be the recipient of some upgrades and investments; but they're still poor areas.

In general, under-funded schools and districts tend to defer maintenance and/or upgrades. When they finally make the upgrades, they will have to make some harsh allocation decisions. We see these harsh allocation decisions in non-athletic aspects of poor school districts, too.

For example, New York has some schools that do very well in neighborhoods that tend to be educationally deprived. The harshness of allocation decisions force people to gain access to those schools via a lottery. Lose the lottery, and you're condemned to go to the failing schools. Win the lottery, and your child might be on the path to future success.

In the athletic context, Lehman's field may be long overdue, and it may have come at the expense of routine facility care at a host of other schools. If the field was bond financed, the bond may have been issued some time ago. Once issued, the expenditures had to be made. In short, people who rely on public expenditures can get the occasional big-ticket item, but it will come at the price of a host of routine expenditures.

The Sacramento schools engaged in a time-tested strategy. They announced that they were either cutting or contemplating cutting sports six months out. That gave the newspapers time to proclaim the end of sports. It riled up the public. The strategy tends to bring in outside funders. The fact that Sacramento had to wait until the last second to gain a one-year bailout from a minor league baseball team is troubling. The bailout is only for one year, and, but for a minor league baseball team (which every city doesn't have), Sacramento may have had to either cut or make massive reductions to its sports programs. Basically, Sacramento escaped by the skin of its teeth.

Ominous sign

The Grand Rapids situation was more the norm: death by a thousand cuts. Some places cut JV sports. Then, they cut transportation. Then they impose participation fees. Then they cut assistant coaches. It may take years, but they're on a slow path to failure.

In short, when we read the news, it may look like some of the schools and school districts are crying wolf. They're not. They're in trouble. School sports is heading down a bad economic road.

One of the most ominous signs of the problems school sports programs are facing occurred recently in the San Fernando Valley.  Montclair Prep High School, a traditional private school sports powerhouse, dropped its entire athletic program in July 2011. This isn't the kind of bluff that we see in February or March where a school says they'll drop the program in the next school year, the community panics and the program gets saved. People don't do that kind of bluffing in July. This is the real thing.

Montclair didn't just eliminate its athletic program. It eliminated its seventh and eighth grades. Montclair used to be a middle and high school. Now, it's just a high school.

Montclair isn't a fly by night school, a small school or an impoverished school. It's a private school with a $15,000 per year tuition, and a long history of teaching the kids of wealthy Hollywood stars. It's been an athletic powerhouse, sending numerous athletes on to the pros.

In short, when Montclair Prep drops athletics, you know the economy is bad and you know that athletic programs anywhere could be next, even at your child's school. So, if you ever wonder whether the school sports economy is really bad, yes it is. Your child's school could be next.

Posted August 2, 2011