LAND O'LAKES — The state's plans to shrink the high school sports schedule could save the Pasco school district about $44,000 in referee and transportation costs. That could be enough to stave off any further cuts to Pasco athletics programs.
The schedule changes approved last week by the Florida High School Athletic Association would reduce regular-season athletic schedules by 20 percent for varsity contests and 40 percent for junior varsity contests.
"The reduction in contests … is probably sufficient to meet the cuts that we have discussed," said Pasco School Board vice chairman Allen Altman.
The board also independently reduced the number of junior varsity games its teams played last year.
The district faces a tough budget year in which it expects to slash about $45 million in general spending.
But Altman observed that the district's half-billion-dollar general budget includes just $1.5 million for sports. It primarily covers referees, transportation, coaches' pay and some equipment.
He argued that cutting athletics further would have an outsized effect on kids while saving taxpayers little.
"My opinion has always been that athletics are one of our most cost-effective dropout prevention programs," he said.
Pasco already charges a student participation fee, which offsets much of the district's potential additional expense, noted board member Kathryn Starkey. Students pay $60 to play one high school sport and $40 for additional sports. Families have a cap of $160 per school. The fees are a bit lower for middle schools.
Few other Florida districts make their athletes pay to play, although a growing number are looking into the idea. Officials from Orange County schools have contacted Pasco for information. Osceola and Volusia also are considering the fee.
It's expected to be a topic of conversation at the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association's annual conference, which is going on this weekend in Orlando.
Even with that funding stream, Pasco still must make its athletic programs more self-sufficient, board chairman Frank Parker said.
"That's probably the only way they're going to survive, given the budget situation," Parker said.
Starkey paid particular attention to booster clubs as the next line of defense. Some schools, such as Land O'Lakes High, use their well-established parent and community groups to collect hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for sports.
Yet other schools, such as River Ridge High, have limited clubs or none at all. Starkey said she's already spoken to new River Ridge principal Maria Swanson about the need.
"They plan to get one going," she said. "Booster clubs are very important for athletics and school pride. I want to make sure we have as strong a one as possible at every school."
Board members plan to meet individually with superintendent Heather Fiorentino and her finance team on Monday to talk more about spending specifics as they prepare to write the 2009-10 budget. Assistant superintendent Jim Davis said athletics won't likely take a big whack.
Still, he added, cuts beyond the schedule change are not completely off the table.
"Could athletics be cut more than the number of contests? Yeah," he said.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tus.com/schools.