School Sports Teams Face Cuts
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Team sports are also taking a hit. In New Jersey, school districts have been forced to eliminate middle-school and freshmen-level sports, lay off coaches, and reduce the number of games played in a season.
But at more affluent schools, parents are stepping in and footing the bill, as NPR's Cindy Rodriguez reports.
CINDY RODRIGUEZ: On a recent hot and muggy afternoon, the Heritage Middle School softball team was obliterating its opponent. A group of parents, mostly moms, watched from atop a grassy hill.
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RODRIGUEZ: The school is in Livingston, New Jersey, a suburban community an hour and a half from New York City. The school district lost about $6 million in state aid, or roughly 5 percent of its overall budget. Recently it announced it would eliminate middle-school sports, until a survey that went out to parents showed 65 percent of them would be willing to help pay for sports themselves.
Ellen Gonik has two daughters that play softball, soccer and tennis, and she's willing to pay for them. She considers sports to be as important as academics.
Ms. ELLEN GONIK (Real Estate Agent): Im a real estate agent in town as well. And for sure, when were talking about and selling our town, we are talking about how it's ranked in the state. And we, in the same breath, mention how fantastic we are at sports because we are - I think, we just won 10-0 here, in this particular game.
RODRIGUEZ: That's why Becky Picon moved back to Livingston, where she grew up. But, she says, given the high taxes she's already paying, she doesnt like the idea of having to contribute to keep her sons in tennis, soccer and lacrosse.
Ms. BECKY PICON: Didnt mind paying the taxes, cause I knew that it was a very well-rounded school system. So, yeah, I think it would be definitely disturbing to have to pay to play.
RODRIGUEZ: The pay-to-play proposal, put forward by school administrators, has parents contributing up to $400 a year for sports and other extracurricular activities. According to the census, the median household income in Livingston is about $135,000 a year. Still, not all families will be able to afford the fee.
Thirteen-year-old Samantha Passeri is on the softball team.
Ms. SAMANTHA PASSERI (Student): Honestly, with the economy now, my family is going through a lot of things. I dont think my mom would probably pay for it because it's just way too much money.
RODRIGUEZ: School administrators say they would likely exempt families who can't afford a fee, and hold fundraisers to make up the money. The Livingston School District is far from the only district struggling with how to keep sports and other extracurricular activities going.
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RODRIGUEZ: In Brick Township, near the Jersey shore, pay to play isnt an option. Parents showed up in large numbers to a recent school board meeting. Many were protesting the elimination of middle- school sports.
John Greenberg says sports provide kids with after-school supervision.
Mr. JOHN GREENBERG: And what are all these kids are going to be doing if they're not in middle-school sports? You know, they're going to be getting themselves in trouble. I know middle-school kids; I have a couple of them. We happen to have one of the biggest families in Bricktown.
RODRIGUEZ: The Greenbergs have six boys. Four already went through Lake Riviera Middle School; another is a sixth grader now. Most of them are pictured in the school's Wrestlers Hall of Fame. The school is known for its wrestling team.
Twelve-year-old Victor Rivera is a wrestler. At 6 feet, 270 pounds, he makes for a formidable opponent. The polite athlete is disappointed about losing his sport.
Mr. VICTOR RIVERA (Student): Because when I was young, I always watched my brother wrestle. And I always looked up to him for it, and then I wanted to try it myself.
RODRIGUEZ: Rivera and others on the team plan to wrestle at the high school and even college level, and considered middle school the place to learn the basic skills of the sport. Without teams, there's no need for coaches. About 20 are expected to lose their jobs.
Steven Timko is the head of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports. He runs a listserv for athletic directors, and says layoffs are happening at all levels.
Mr. STEVEN TIMKO (Executive Director, Interscholastic Athletic Association): You see athletic directors on the listserv saying, anybody that may be looking for a varsity tennis coach, we have a great one. Unfortunately, that program has been cut, or his teaching position has been cut.
RODRIGUEZ: Timko says pressure to cut athletics is the worst he's seen it, and he says once a program goes, it's hard to bring it back.
Cindy Rodriguez, NPR News, New York.
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