The Hernando County School Board is poised to affix a cash register to middle school athletics. It's the right thing to do. Tuesday afternoon, meeting in a workshop, School Board members offered unanimous support for maintaining interscholastic sports at the middle school level, but a majority indicated a willingness to ask parents to chip in for the expenses.
Dropping sports, for a $200,000 annual savings, was one of the alternatives under consideration to stave off staff reductions as the district searches for $4.5 million to meet voter-mandated class-size reductions. The majority of the cost, $166,000, is tied to salary and benefits for coaching supplements. Currently, the middle schools offer football, volleyball, golf, cheerleading, softball, basketball, tennis and track. A year ago, just more than 1,700 athletes participated at the seven schools.
It is easy to understand the board's enthusiasm for athletics. Many extracurricular activities, including interscholastic sports, play an important role in a child's education, providing outside-of-the-classroom lessons in setting and achieving goals, teamwork, communication and time management. It is a drop-out prevention tool and it can motivate lower academic achievers because a 2.0 grade point average is a prerequisite to play. Offering athletic opportunities also has gained added significance because of the push to promote more exercise as a way to help curb childhood obesity.
But asking the district to absorb the entire cost is a luxury the board can no longer afford. School Board members asked district staff for more information on the per-athlete cost of individual sports and for a rate structure reflective of students getting free or reduced-priced lunches before final consideration.
Hernando is not breaking new ground. Neighboring Pasco County, for instance, charges middle school students $45 if they are chosen for an interscholastic team. If they play a second sport, the cost drops to $30 for a maximum of $75 per individual and $120 per family for the school year. Because of the staggered athletic schedules, students have the ability to play as many as four sports through a single academic year. A similar fee schedule could raise as much as $77,000 or 39 percent of the middle school sports tab in Hernando.
Suggestions from the audience that the state or county could kick in were wishful thinking. More likely, the Legislature will ask local taxpayers to foot more of the bill for financing public schools in Florida via higher property tax rates. Meanwhile, Hernando County is trying to close its own projected budget shortfall of more than $4 million by Oct. 1.
Help is not coming from outside sources. Parents who want their children to participate in middle school sports will have to bear a reasonable share in the cost.