IMAGE: Kenai Central High School football
Kenai Central won the Alaska small schools championship last year. When players returned this season, they had to pay $150 to play, a common strategy among struggling districts.
By Alex Johnson Reporter
msnbc.com

It gets very cold very early in Alaska, even in the south, where the Kenai Peninsula juts into the Gulf of Alaska below Anchorage. If you want to play football, you’d better start in August and wrap it up by November, before high temperatures start dropping into the 20s. And you’d better get out your checkbook.

When the high school football season started on the peninsula on Aug. 9, earlier than anywhere else in America, every player had paid $150 just for the privilege of showing up — 50 percent more than he paid a year ago.

As the new school year opens to ever-worsening budget shortfalls, such higher fees for sports and activities are rapidly becoming a favorite tactic to make up for shrinking budgets. No one keeps formal statistics, but an MSNBC.com review of records on file with the National Center for Education Statistics, part of the Education Department, and news clippings from all 50 states found that athletes must pay to play in at least 29 of them.

The fees aren’t the only way to raise money fast. Districts in almost a dozen states have adopted or are considering proposals to chop the school week to four days. Others are selling naming rights to football stadiums and basketball arenas to corporate sponsors or, at the opposite extreme, eliminating entire sports programs. Some Hawaii high schools no longer play basketball, for example.

Ideas for raising money range far and wide:

  • In Oregon, lawmakers are seriously considering a political heresy: a statewide sales tax. Funding for state schools is so poor that Republicans are leading the effort, pushing for 5 percent.
  • In Colorado Springs, the public School for the Deaf and the Blind is up for sale under a plan that would require the buyer to lease the school back to the state. Classes would continue as normal, but proceeds from the deal would boost loan prospects.
  • Unable because of the low pay to attract native-born teachers for crowded Spanish classes, some districts in Illinois have sent representatives to Spain and Mexico on recruiting missions.

‘How can you justify cuts?'
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School Board began charging students to take part in sports and other activities a few years ago, when budget cuts eliminated funding for supplies.

The new fees charge $150 for major sports, like football and basketball, and $100 for smaller sports and related activities — cross-country, say, or cheerleading.

The extra money pays for transportation. On the peninsula, where six high schools are spread across a district the size of West Virginia, the bill adds up fast.

Success can be costly, too. For example, 11 wrestlers from peninsula schools made the state tournament last year in Ketchikan, across the gulf south of Juneau. Unfortunately, “you obviously can’t drive to Ketchikan,” said Dave Spence, the district’s director of planning and operations.

If you plug any city on the peninsula into mapping software and ask for directions to Ketchikan, you’re told you can’t get there from here. “You have to go by boat or plane,” Spence said in an interview.

Spence acknowledged that “nobody liked the prospect” of raising the fees. But “how can you justify cuts that are being made in the classroom, cuts to the educational mission of the school district, and still not do something?”

Leveraging the environment
Most states are hurting across the board. But because education is the largest expenditure in a typical state’s budget — about 22 percent this year, according to the annual survey by the National Governors Association — schools have taken the biggest hit.

Even though some raised taxes and others dipped into rainy-day funds, the states began the fiscal year with a total projected education budget gap of $49.1 billion, the nonprofit Education Commission of the States calculated.

Perhaps the most inventive response is under discussion in Rappahannock County, Va., where school advocates have seized on a complicated provision of state conservation law to make up for declining state funding.

Here’s how the proposal, drafted by a committee appointed by county supervisors, is supposed to work:

As the committee noted, when residents donate land into “scenic easement” — a restricted classification designed to preserve open space — it is assessed for property tax purposes only on its basic land-use value, not its full fair market value.

As a consequence, the more land it has in the open-space classification, the poorer Rappahannock County looks on Virginia’s tax rolls. That triggers provisions of the state’s funding formula that are supposed to compensate county schools for lost taxes.

A study concluded that Rappahannock schools could net an extra $6 to $9 a year for every acre classified as open space. Committee member Martin Woodard, an art gallery owner and former head of a private foundation that supports local schools, said the panel would recommend this fall that county supervisors streamline the process and lobby property owners to donate more land.

Woodard predicted in an interview that the county could likely double or even triple the amount of land in the open-space classification over the next five years. That would generate a quarter-million-dollar annual windfall under the most favorable conditions, a significant boost for Rappahannock’s small school system — enough to hire seven or eight full-time teachers.

A two-for-one deal
The proposal is what government officials like to call a two-fer: Not only would the schools do well, but more open space would also be preserved. That’s a big deal in Rappahannock County, a breathtaking region of mountains, fields and forests that borders Shenandoah National Park.

“There’s a real strong desire to keep this county in open space — forever if possible,” Woodard said. “It’s beneficial from a lifestyle and a public planning point of view.”

But there’s no doubt that concern over schools is driving the proposal.

Districts like Rappahannock’s are at a disadvantage because few if any businesses make their homes in small, rural counties, said Bob Chappell, the new school superintendent. Consequently, there just isn’t a big enough corporate tax base to keep the schools afloat.

The school board hasn’t taken a formal position on the land donation proposal, which hasn’t yet been submitted, but the board worked with the committee, which includes Chappell’s predecessor.

“We are obviously open to any and all suggestions,” Chappell said in an interview.

Going it alone
Sometimes, parents have been known to take matters into their own hands to get more money for their children’s schools.

Spurred by a budget dispute between the towns that make up the Hamilton-Wenham Regional School District of Massachusetts, parents cut out the middleman when they raised money themselves to save music and sports programs and rehire laid-off teachers.

Voters in Wenham approved a provision to override a tax freeze, but Hamilton didn’t go along, forcing school officials to piece together a compromise budget at a rancorous public meeting. That budget continued a trend in which the district’s funding has dropped by about $5 million in the last three years, said Kimberley Jaeger of Support Our Students, which organized the fund drive.

“A lot of people had a wake-up call,” Jaeger said in an interview, and the group collected more than $10,000 on the night of the meeting alone. “That was a pretty good statement right there.”

Over 3½ weeks in July and August alone, residents wrote checks for more than $193,000, all of which was to be turned over to the school system to use as it sees fit.

But Jaeger said such measures are only a “Band-Aid,” not a permanent solution.

“We’re considered to be somewhat of an affluent community and, frankly, in a pretty affluent country, and can’t we do something to hold this together?”

© 2003 MSNBC Interactive

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