Athletics worth the cost, school officials say

School officials: Benefits well worth sports’ bit of budget

Huntley fans trickle in to the home side of the stadium before a game Sept. 20 at Huntley High School. Huntley recently completed a completed a $3.6 million renovation of their sports facility.
Huntley fans trickle in to the home side of the stadium before a game Sept. 20 at Huntley High School. Huntley recently completed a completed a $3.6 million renovation of their sports facility.

Three years ago, faced with a deficit that was thought to be more than $4 million, McHenry District 156 officials threatened an end to extracurriculars.

If voters didn’t say yes to raising taxes 60 cents per $100 in equalized assessed value, they said, students could kiss band and Key club goodbye. Still more fearsome to many: how could a community survive without sports?

“Athletics taught me how to compete,” resident John Meyer said at a school board meeting shortly after the referendum was voted down, according to Northwest Herald archives. “We cannot take this away.”

But a debate exists about whether those strong feelings in the U.S. toward high school sports might actually set students back when it comes to academics. Some argue that school districts across the country over-emphasize the importance of sports, putting hundreds of thousands of tax dollars toward athletics every year, sometimes undertaking multi-million dollar stadium renovations, while the financial times call for cuts.

McHenry County schools have been no stranger to patching deficits in recent years, yet significant cuts to sports have been sparse, if existent at all. Local administrators give several reasons for the disconnect, and many say a commitment to athletics goes hand-in-hand with a commitment to school.

But another reason might be that athletics simply don’t comprise enough of the budget to make much of a difference.

“If you have to cut a lot of money, you have to go where the money is,” Huntley District 158 Superintendent John Burkey said. “There just isn’t a lot of money [put toward athletics], in percentage terms, to begin with.”

The $1.1 million that District 158 set aside for activities – which includes sports, but also band, yearbook and other extracurriculars – makes up about 1.1 percent of the total budget for the 2013-14 fiscal year.

In September, District 200 passed a $88.5 million budget – of which $1.7 million, or about 2 percent, goes toward activities.

A year and a half ago, when Woodstock District 200 was facing a $2.67 million shortfall, administrators didn’t consider cuts to athletics a viable option to help balance the budget.

“You would probably be looking at cutting whole programs to make enough of an impact,” said George Oslovich, District 200’s assistant superintendent for middle and high school education. “Especially at the high school level, let’s say there you cut freshman sports, what would that do to your varsity?”

The district cut 16 certified staff positions at a savings of $1.1 million to the district, froze administrators’ pay, among other cost-savers, and pulled from reserves to cover the gap.

Oslovich said the district tried to cut from areas that were inefficient, and where attendance was low. Athletics didn’t fit that description.

“We know that students are more successful, especially at the high school level, the more involved they are in high school activities,” he said. “We didn’t want to pull that away.”

When things were all said and done in District 156, warnings by the school board about slashing extracurriculars – and with them, sports – weren’t upheld. The estimated deficit of $4 million turned out to be overblown. In actuality, the district was short about $700,000.

Still, under a plan to spread out cuts to close the deficit over time, coaches of all sports took a 25 percent pay decrease over two years, Superintendent Mike Roberts said.

Roberts, who was a principal at the time, said his philosophy is to cut across the board, regardless of department.

“As we face budgets today, we look at it as: if our projects are five percent over, we need to reduce our budget by five percent, and everybody across the board takes hits,” Roberts said. “We’re not going to gut anything.”

For The Atlantic recently, Amanda Ripley, a writer who has covered education extensively, made a case that from an academic standpoint, schools would be better off severely reducing the flow of money into athletics.

She said that athletics have a residual, negative effect on the entire school by draining resources that could be put to use elsewhere. Putting so much emphasis on sports, Ripley argued, has contributed to the country’s comparatively lackluster performance on international assessments.

Local administrators pointed to high participation in sports and activities surrounding sports – such as cheerleading or band – as justification for costs.

District 155 pulled $1.18 million from its construction fund to pay for its recent upgrade of Crystal Lake South High School’s football stadium, which has been controversial for reasons outside its cost. Spokesman Jeff Puma said that if there have been complaints about overspending on that project or athletics in general, they haven’t made it to his office.

“The fact of the matter is that 63 percent of our kids participate in athletics,” Puma said. “That might speak to why we have not gotten complaints.”

District 155 devoted about 3 percent, or $2.8 million, of its $95.7 million budget to activities this year.

In District 158, the Red Raiders football team is playing on field turf this year in a new, $3.6 million stadium.

The funds came from a $39.4 million grant from the state to help build two new schools. The state was late in paying the district, which took out bonds to cover the cost of the schools. When the grant money came, officials decided to put it toward the stadium, in addition to paying down debt.

Burkey, the District 158 superintendent, said that extracurriculars – sports or otherwise – play a vital role in the high school experience.

“I hate using the term ‘extra,’” he said. “In my mind, they really aren’t extra. They are a core part of educating a student.”

Burkey and others also said sports can serve as a reason for many students to attend and stay engaged in school, if for no better reason than to avoid repercussions with coaches.

Truancy Outreach Officer Bob Diviacchi, who works with the worst of the worst cases of chronic truancy in the county at the McHenry County Regional Office of Education, said that of the cases he’s reviewed since starting his job more than a year ago, none have involved athletes.

“We’ve tried to push them to get into athletics or any type of club activity for that matter to try to help their truancy,” he said.

Added Leslie Schermerhorn, McHenry County regional superintendent of schools: “Sometimes, that’s the only reason a child will go to school.”

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