Oakwood does not have pay-to-participate fees. “We’ve been fortunate enough not to have to look at it as a revenue source,” said Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey, who said more than 85 percent of his high school students participate in some type of extracurricular activity. JIM WITMER/STAFF
Photo: Jim Witmer
Photo: Jim Witmer

High fees keeping some kids off the field

Schools say pay-to-play fees needed to offset sports’ costs.

A two-sport athlete at Wayne High School pays $700 in annual participation fees — maybe the equivalent of a family’s monthly rent or a couple of car payments.

But that same athlete wouldn’t pay a dime to play in Dayton, Oakwood or Miamisburg schools because those districts don’t have pay-to-participate fees.

Such fees vary widely depending on the district, which means there are barriers for some students depending on where they live.

There is no state rule or policy on the issue, but two elected officials — Ohio Sen. Cliff Hite, R-Findlay, and Secretary of State Jon Husted — are pushing for the elimination of the fees, saying they discourage kids from playing.

“It’s about giving children the experiences they need in school to prepare them for life,” said Husted, a Republican who starred on a national championship football team at the University of Dayton. “We know these fees serve as a barrier to those experiences, and we need to knock down that barrier.”

Most local school officials agree that low fees would be ideal, but they’re also trying to offset hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual school athletic costs.

Springboro schools’ total budget is $48 million, and 2014-15 athletic department spending was nearly $1 million ($941,568), with 70 percent of that paying for coaches. With 25 sports, head coaches and assistants, and separate varsity, junior varsity and freshman levels, 100-coach staffs are not unheard of at large schools.

Springboro’s pay-to-play fees of $260 per sport brought in $297,445 last year — 32 percent of the athletic budget. The gap was covered by $175,000 in ticket sales, $160,000 in concessions and miscellaneous revenue, and ultimately, more than $300,000 from the district’s general fund.

“Pay-to-participate revenue is a critical component in providing the opportunities we offer, with consistent competition, coaching and development to our student-athletes,” said Springboro Athletic Director Matt Louis, whose district has more than 1,200 students participating in sports at the junior high and high school levels. “The loss of that revenue would be devastating, and it would force difficult budgeting decisions.”

Participation down among some

A book by Harvard political science professor Robert Putnam convinced Husted that something has to be done about participation fees in Ohio.

In the book, “Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis,” Putnam writes that poor children are worse off today than when he grew up in the ’40s and ’50s near Lake Erie, in part, because fewer are participating in sports.

According to his data, 86 percent of students from the highest-income families participate in extracurricular activities — slightly higher than during the 1970s — but participation among the lowest-income families is down about 15 percentage points, to 65 percent.

“No one talked (50 years ago) about soft skills, but voters and school administrators understood that football, chorus, and the debate club taught valuable lessons that should be open to all kids, regardless of their family background,” Putnam writes in the book.

The message hit home with Husted, who said extracurricular activities reinforce teamwork, discipline and other character-building skills.

“I know this from personal experience,” he said. “I was not a good student. I was a good athlete. It was athletics that led me to academics. It was athletics that taught me the toughness and perseverance that helped me succeed in life.”

Husted said extracurricular activities “correlate as much with success after school as do test scores.” Yet, he said, schools charge fees for band or football “when we wouldn’t do that for a math class.”

However, some question whether fees truly keep out students — given that many schools waive the fees for low-income students and overall sport participation continues to rise.

“I’m certain there have been isolated cases where fees have affected participation numbers, but certainly nothing widespread across the country,” Bruce Howard, a spokesman for the National Federation of State High School Associations, wrote in an email to this newspaper.

‘Coach, we couldn’t afford it’

Wayne Athletic Director and football coach Jay Minton, whose team played in the state championship game on Saturday, doesn’t doubt that high fees are keeping some players off the field.

When the high school’s sports fees shot from $225 to $428 per sport three years ago after levy failures and budget cuts, Minton said participation levels dropped about 30 percent.

“A lot of times you found out after the fact why they didn’t come out,” said Minton, adding that participation at Wayne is rising again. “Kids are embarrassed somewhat so they didn’t mention it. Then you ask and they say, ‘Coach, we couldn’t afford it.’ ”

A 2012 survey by researchers at the University of Michigan found nearly 1 in 5 lower-income parents said costs forced their children to cut back on sports.

Stephanie Webb, who was watching her grandson play basketball for Fairborn High School last week, said she has seen kids left out of activities because of cost, which in Fairborn is $100 per sport at the junior high and $150 in high school.

“There’s the fee, but you’ve got everything else to buy too,” Webb said. “You’ve got sneakers and warm-up shirts and equipment and whatever else it takes for the sport you’re in.”

But Webb, a former Fairborn school board member, said she can’t see doing away with the fees.

“Schools are having a hard enough time making ends meet — everything’s fundraising, fundraising, fundraising,” she said. “It’s tough to find that middle where it’s fair to everybody … and that’s sad when you’re trying to do right by kids.”

Students and their parents do more than work repeated concession-stand shifts to raise money. Centerville’s boosters partnered with a car dealership on a test-drive fundraiser. Northmont and Alter worked with a company on a mattress sale. Fairmont parents work volunteer shifts at Fraze Pavilion concerts for credit.

Northmont Athletic Director Robin Spiller said if fees are banned, booster clubs would have to raise more funds, or families might have to buy uniforms themselves.

Geoff Hyman, whose son plays basketball for Bellbrook, said, “Student athletics is an important aspect of the high school experience, yet at the same time, we’re running out of money, and I think everybody needs to contribute a little.”

If fees are eliminated, he asked, “Where does the money come from?”

Statewide discussion

Hite, who held four public hearings on the topic around the state in November, says he will release his findings and recommendations early next year.

At a Nov. 23 meeting in Dayton, several school officials argued against a “one-size-fits-all” solution, saying a ban on fees would cause deep funding issues in some districts.

“I have no doubt you all have the best intentions, (but) are we only going to keep basketball and football, because you get gate receipts?” asked Beth Weber, treasurer of Sycamore Community Schools outside Cincinnati. “I urge you not to make this a state issue.”

Hite says he understands the schools’ perspective but wants to hear more from parents and students before deciding on a course of action.

“I would like to hear from students who can’t afford to play,” he said. “I would like to hear from kids who could go big-time but didn’t have the money to play. Schools were saying it doesn’t happen — but it probably does.”

From $0 to $1,040

A survey this newspaper conducted of 30 local school districts found nine with no pay-to-participate fees, 10 where the fee per high school sport is between $45 and $100, and 11 where the fee ranges from $125 to $400 per sport.

Many districts place a cap on how much an individual student, or a family, can be charged in a given year. Those family caps are as low as $150 at Fairmont, and as high as $950 at Wayne and $1,040 at Springboro.

Some districts waive or reduce pay-to-play fees for low-income students – Springboro and Kettering cut their fees by more than half, while Centerville waives its $225 per sport fee for all students who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“The board of education has been very clear that students will not lose an opportunity to be part of school activities caused from financial hardship,” Centerville treasurer Mitch Biederman said.

Other districts — Brookville, Vandalia-Butler, Huber Heights and Valley View among them – do not have a separate fee structure for low-income students. Some offer payment plans or have booster groups that try to cover the costs for needy students.

Minton said the parent-led Every Warrior Plays program was launched when Wayne’s pay-to-play fees soared. Between donations from businesses and teachers, plus fundraisers run by parents, they’ve helped offset some costs.

Some of the districts that charge no fee, such as Dayton, Trotwood and Northridge, are in low-income communities where fees would be a significant barrier. But Miamisburg, Troy and Oakwood — where residents regularly approve school levies — also charge no fees. Oakwood Superintendent Kyle Ramey said fee policies should be a local decision, not a state mandate.

“We’ve been fortunate enough not to have to look at (fees) as a revenue source,” said Ramey, adding that more than 85 percent of Oakwood students participate in some type of extracurricular activity. “It’s such a huge part of the overall education of our children. … That’s part of our philosophy.”

Coaches’ salaries and benefits are 50 to 80 percent of the athletic spending at most schools, although some districts don’t list those costs under the athletic budget. Those salaries are a big chunk because there are so many coaches, not because salaries are high. The football and basketball coaches at Fairborn, Dayton and Centerville schools all make between $5,800 and $7,300 per year for those jobs.

Hard choices

If pay-to-play fees go away, schools in every corner of the state would feel the pinch.

Tim Stried, director of information for the Ohio High School Athletic Association, said 46 percent of schools statewide reported using some form of pay-to-play fees in 2014. He said he would be “very surprised” if any high school athletic departments in Ohio are fully self-sufficient, with sports revenues covering all expenses, including coach salaries.

Stried said sports usually account for 2 to 3 percent of a school district’s total budget, meaning cuts won’t make a big difference for the district overall. But he said it hits home when the choice is to cut sports or cut a few teachers.

“It’s a dilemma because on one hand, OHSAA would love to see either no fees or small fees,” Stried said. “But I know there are some schools where if they didn’t have fees, they would eliminate some of their teams. It’s a difficult situation for sure.”

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