Is a school basketball coach more valuable than a school reading or mathematics coach?
The Hernando School Board seems to think so. This week, its budget-cutting tactics included sparing middle school sports ($300,000) while cutting the number of reading coaches in the district from 20 to 10 ($571,000), or one for every two schools, and eliminating three math coaches ($171,000).
Those are just the early decisions. Continued discussions about teacher and staff salary cuts, reduced bus service and more kids per classroom await as the School Board identifies up to $30 million in cuts that may be needed to balance next year's budget in the wake of declining sales and property tax revenue from the recession.
A disclaimer: I am a fan of middle school sports. My older son played middle school soccer in Pasco County, and the younger one has ambitions to do likewise in the next year or two if the opportunity still exists. (Don't count on it.)
Many extracurricular activities, including interscholastic sports, play an important role in a child's education, providing outside-the classroom lessons in setting and achieving goals, teamwork, communication and time management. It's also hard to cut sports at the same time that everyone (including the Legislature) is pushing kids to get more exercise in a national battle against childhood obesity.
But I also don't think the kids lacing up their sneakers to shoot jumpers, spike volleyballs, run sprints and generally sweat through their practice shirts on behalf of their middle school are likely to be sitting idle the rest of the time. I suspect they have other outlets for physical activity, which is why they were athletic enough to make the school team in the first place.
Interscholastic sports also are an ideal dropout prevention tool. They capture kids at a vulnerable age and reinforce the value of academics, providing a way to motivate youngsters to try as hard in the classroom as they do on the court. Forget going for the double-double if your GPA gets you benched.
Despite the benefits, sports should not supersede the three R's. If the School Board feels strongly about maintaining competitive sports at the middle school level, it should ask parents to foot the bill.
It's the same choice others parents will be asked to make. With fewer reading and no math coaches, parents of borderline performers may have to hire private tutors to improve their children's chances at being better readers or be able to balance a checkbook without a calculator.
Kids aren't the only ones in need of math coaching. A little extra tutoring might prevent some of the unrealistic projections from the governor's office. Gov. Charlie Crist's proposed budget called for the Hernando school district to educate 22,654 students in the coming year, a modest increase of 126 children. Exactly where the governor expects those children to come from is anybody's guess, but Hernando is one of 23 districts that are not scheduled to receive a declining-enrollment supplement from Tallahassee.
Even the Legislature's research arm doesn't buy it. Its projections call for a status quo of 22,528 kids. The school district predicts flat enrollment as well and is budgeting accordingly.
The difference might seem like a small matter about which to quibble; it's only 126 kids. But if Hernando educators prepare their coming year's spending plan based on state aid that uses inaccurate data, they'll be back cutting again — at least half a million dollars, or two-thirds more than the expense of operating middle school sports teams.
Math coaches should tutor the governor, state Rep. Rob Schenck, Sen. Mike Fasano and the rest of the legislative delegation on the financial benefits of raising taxes on cigarette smokers, instituting the sales tax on Internet transactions, and closing the sales tax loopholes that legislators love to talk up during election time — ostrich feed, stadium luxury boxes, lap dances — but fail to confront when they return to Tallahassee.
The Hernando School Board wouldn't have such a hard time balancing books and basketballs if the Florida Legislature were more serious about balancing the state's books with its needs.