Saturday, December 16, 2017

Tight budgets, skimpy stipends plague high school athletic programs

Gibbs High School's football players are hungry when they come into coach Rick Kravitz's office after school. • Some of the teenage boys last ate around 10 a.m., and with hours of hard practice standing between now and dinner, Kravitz makes them a tray of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. • But money is tight. • Gibbs doesn't have a booster club. Almost three-fourths of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Kravitz has asked parents and churches to help fund the program he inherited in March, but he still has to limit how much peanut butter each child receives. • "We have to ration the jelly," said Kravitz, Gibbs' fifth football coach in eight seasons. "We have to make it last for as many loaves of bread that we have."

As school districts have tightened their budgets across Tampa Bay, high school athletes have been impacted — from their uniforms, to their coaches, to where they play and what they eat and drink.

Equipment budgets have shriveled. Travel costs have risen. Junior varsity and middle school sports have been on the chopping block. Some students must pay to play.

And stuck in the middle are overworked coaches trying to give their players the best experience possible while earning pennies an hour.

"Everyone loves to say I didn't get into coaching to make money," Pinellas Park football coach Kenny Crawford said. "Well, I didn't go into it to become broke, either."

Athletic budgets hit hard

To minimize damage to core subjects and teachers, school districts have targeted sports to help ease multimillion-dollar deficits.

Schools across the country slashed athletic budgets an estimated $3.5 billion from 2009-11, according to Up2Us, a New York-based nonprofit that promotes youth sports.

"That's the biggest issue that everybody faces," said Shelton Crews, executive director of the Florida Athletic Coaches Association.

In Hernando County, school officials estimate the district has halved its safety equipment budget the past decade. Hernando High athletic director Kevin Bittinger said he could easily justify spending $15,000 to recondition helmets and replace old pads.

The district gives him $5,000.

"As much as we would like to complain about it, there's just not much you can do about it," Bittinger said. "Everybody's hurting. Everybody's taking hits."

Pinellas County's sports budget has dropped 26 percent ($615,000) since 2005. Hillsborough County has kept its athletics spending steady around $6 million — less than half of 1 percent of the district's total expenses — while opening two new high schools.

In 2011, Hernando County instituted a pay-to-play policy of up to $70 per child to help offset costs. This is the first year since 2008 that district officials didn't propose cutting junior varsity or middle school sports.

Pasco County has also considered trimming middle school and high school sports each of the past six years. The $2 million in potential savings this year could help plug the district's anticipated $26 million shortfall.

To prevent eliminating varsity programs, school officials have prioritized expenses.

They pull money from concession sales and tickets to have enough safety equipment. Team camps and tournaments have dwindled. Hillsborough and Pinellas don't offer JV baseball. Pasco has switched from charter buses to school buses while scrapping most travel outside the county.

"I know we should never have to turn away kids because we don't have a uniform or we don't have a piece of equipment," said Phil Bell, Pasco County's athletic director. "We'll figure that out, but schools have definitely had to make tough decisions on how to spend their dollars as they've seen their dollars shrink."

Booster clubs can help, often raising six figures to fund trips and buy new uniforms, but not every school has one. That leaves coaches responsible for filling the remaining fiscal gaps.

They find sponsors, reach out to churches and spearhead fundraisers. They buy Gatorade and ant spray with their personal money. They paint their own locker rooms and rake their own fields.

Leto football coach Matt Kitchie's wife makes the team banana pudding, and Pasco High's football coaches find friends to weld their 34-year-old blocking sled.

"It takes a lot of work," said Mike Quarto, who led Gulf's girls basketball team to five district titles before resigning in 2012. "It takes a lot of phone calls. It takes a lot of knocking on doors to get it done. A lot of coaches aren't willing to do it at this point in time."

Especially for what they get paid.

Cash-strapped coaches

Although the demands on coaches have spiked with year-round sports cycles, an increased pressure to win and the frenzied push to get players college scholarships, their pay has not.

Don Dziagwa earned $1,888 to take over Tampa Catholic's boys basketball program in 1991, when gas was $1.10 a gallon. Twenty-two years later, he makes $2,650 — a raise of $35 a year.

Between buying fuel, meals, shirts and assorted gear for their programs, most coaches say they lose money coaching.

"Coaching these days is like asking someone to kick you in the (groin)," Pinellas Park's Crawford said, "and giving them $10 to do it."

The same is true for assistant coaches who are paid even less, if at all. Football assistants in Hernando and Pinellas make about $1,800 — barely half of what some earn in Orange County. Some districts don't offer assistants stipends in sports such as soccer, softball or baseball.

"They are volunteering their time, and it's a lot," said Kaylyn Bayly, Countryside's volleyball and softball coach.

The gap between hours worked and pay received is largest in football, where autumn nights bleed into winter workouts, spring practice and summer 7-on-7 tournaments.

The best head coaches in other football states such as Texas and Oklahoma earn six figures with administrators' pay scales and no teaching duties. Tampa Bay's top coaches max out at less than $4,500 in base stipends while teaching full course loads.

In Calhoun, Ga., the head coach earned a $17,460 stipend to lead his team to the 2011 state championship, according to the Chattanooga Times Free Press. That's more than the combined head coaching stipends at Plant, Bradenton Manatee and Armwood during their state title runs that year ($15,708).

But with core school programs and teaching jobs at risk, boosting coaches' pay isn't an option.

"There's no one to really bargain for it or fight for it," said Greg Zornes, Countryside's assistant principal over athletics. "And when things are so tight, with teachers getting cut and programs threatened, and you want to increase coaching stipends? That's not going to work."

Instead, coaches leave.

Since the fall, 157 Florida high schools have changed football coaches. That's the most in the 20 years LRS Sports' Dwight Thomas has been tracking turnover. Only 34 of the Tampa Bay area's 77 football schools have had the same coach for three full seasons. Sixteen of them have had at least three coaches since 2008.

"You see constant turnover," said Bill Vonada, who resigned in December after 15 years as Springstead's football coach. "It's so draining, and you don't do it for the money. But at some point, you have to be able to find a way to provide for your family. I can't keep justifying all these hours."

As coaches leave, schools have a harder time replacing them. Districts don't have the money to add new positions, so they have to balance teaching allotments with coaching vacancies.

Ridgewood was without a football coach for almost four months last year as administrators waited to see which teaching positions they could offer candidates. Its athletic director helped lead offseason workouts until Jay Fulmer was hired five days before the start of spring practice.

At Hernando High, Bittinger is trying to complete his staff with five open teaching positions. But how many basketball coaches can also teach French?

Adjunct coaches are another option, but they aren't on campus to interact with and mentor students during the day.

"It's not as easy to replace somebody as everybody thinks it is," said Wiregrass Ranch athletic director Dave Wilson, who also coaches the school's soccer and tennis teams.

Not going away

Tampa Bay has been spared from drastic changes so far.

No major sports have been eliminated. Coaches have kept their jobs. Players still have basic equipment.

But the constant threat of cuts linger over athletic departments like an ax waiting to fall.

"I don't think any of this is going to go away," Bittinger said. "I think there's going to be more pressure and stress of what to do. The bills aren't gonna stop coming in."

The teenagers at Gibbs aren't going to stop coming in either.

They need helmets and coaches. They need weights to lift and water to drink. They need fields to run on and buses to get them there.

And they need after-school snacks, one carefully jellied sandwich apiece, until practice begins and the tray in Kravitz's office is empty.

Time staff writers Bob Putnam, John C. Cotey, Rodney Page and Joey Knight contributed to this report. Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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