Steve Luikart was a jock four decades ago. A two-sport athlete at Gulf High school, the current Pasco School Board member said team sports shaped his life.
Basketball allowed him to continue his post-high school education at a junior college in North Carolina. He later earned bachelor's and master's degrees from state universities in Florida and pursued a three-decade career as a teacher and school administrator.
Without sports, Luikart admitted to an audience of about 150 people, he would have bypassed college, stayed in west Pasco and looked for a blue-collar job in the construction trades.
So Luikart empathized with the speaker before him Thursday evening. Standing at a podium inside the Fivay High School cafeteria was Troy Graziano, a Hudson High junior and member of the Cobras varsity football team. He was there as part of a series of town hall meetings on the upcoming school district budget.
"I think it would be an absolute shame to cut athletic programs,'' Graziano said.
Indeed. This isn't about the glamor of Friday night lights. Sports and all extracurricular activities allow students a chance to set aside the books, but still learn teamwork, persistence, time management, goal-setting and the value of hard work.
However, the extras are easy targets on a Pasco School District cost-cutting list that needs to reach $60 million over the next several months. Eliminating middle and high school sports saves a combined $1.7 million, or less than 3 percent of the expected shortfall. Even though the savings are relatively minimal, some educators believe the public won't pay attention to an austerity budget until sports and extracurricular programs are cut and a four-day school week is the norm.
Certainly, it is hard to rationalize maintaining sports while laying off teachers, but this idea of setting spending priorities according to vengeance is counterproductive to students' needs. Neither the School Board nor superintendent Heather Fiorentino has indicated a buy-in to this sentiment for punitive budgeting.
Graziano suggested requiring athletes to provide their own transportation to away games. Another parent volunteered to pay additional fees for extracurricular activities "if I had a choice of doing that or having them eliminated.''
(In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that my spouse is an elementary school teacher and the younger offspring is in the middle school band and played interscholastic sports this year.)
Sports, however, is just one constituency. The sacred cows are many. Band parents want music programs protected. Ditto for art. The union wants layoffs to extend beyond school-based personnel. In other words, it wants fewer administrators. The private sector wants ancillary services privatized. Teachers want the new personnel assessments developed in-house rather than by a pricey consultant. One speaker suggested liquidating district real estate that has been acquired and set aside for future school sites.
The sad realization, however, is that plenty of pinks slips will be distributed. The school district employs 9,700 people and personnel costs account for 86 percent of the budget.
"This year we will be laying off people,'' Fiorentino said earlier in the week. "We will be laying off a lot of people.''
Federal stimulus money, totaling $32 million, is expiring, putting 620 jobs at risk. Meanwhile, one of the ideas kicked around the past two years is to require middle and high school teachers to teach six periods a day instead of five. It saves $12 million, but eliminates 350 teaching positions.
Those two items alone would account for the termination of 970 people or 10 percent of the district work force. It would still leave a $16 million shortfall — the equivalent of eliminating all music, art, sports, and firing each school's media specialists. Or you could just jam more kids in every classroom and ignore the class-size amendment, fire teachers and save $9 million.
None of this has been decided and none of these are pretty options.
Amid the gloom, one speaker heaved a Hail Mary. He advocated year-round schools without acknowledging the added cost nor the needed role of Tallahassee lawmakers to make it a reality.
The jock batted it down, incomplete.
"The Legislature,'' Luikart told him, "doesn't fund schools appropriately now.''