By JONATHAN GANCI
Capital News Service
LANSING — With proposed reductions in state aid to education looming, athletic departments around the state are bracing themselves to make tough decisions.
Gov. Rick Snyder’s proposed $470 decrease in per-pupil funding could lead some districts to scale back athletics, on top of cuts already made in previous years, according to John Johnson, the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) communications director.
Johnson said participation in school sports has remained stable with more than 300,000 students in the past five years, seeing only a 1 percent drop despite previous slashes in funding.
However, Johnson said that it might be more difficult for districts to avoid program cuts without affecting participation.
“Schools are going to face tighter budgets and tougher decisions,” Johnson said. “They are going to have to make decisions about cutting participation opportunity, or finding another means of paying for it.”
Steve Babbitt, the athletic director of Blissfield Community Schools, said his district has been “brainstorming” ways to absorb the loss in state aid.
Babbitt said while there have been no final decisions, options range from eliminating teams to scaling back transportation and asking students to pay more to play.
“We are in conversations about how much money we would save if we eliminate freshman teams or didn’t transport on Saturdays,“ Babbitt said.
According to Babbitt, a major cost is taking athletes to day-long tournaments because of the high cost of busing.
Steve Parker, athletic director at Cheboygan Area Schools, said his district is already in a cost-cutting mode.
“I am not sure where we can cut at this point,” Parker said. “We cut some freshman sports last year and we are low in middle school sports.”
According to Parker, Cheboygan’s middle schools offer volleyball, track and field and boy’s and girl’s basketball.
Parker said that varsity sports such as hockey, wrestling and bowling are all self-funded.
Self-funded sports receive no money from school districts and depend on participants and donors.
Blissfield’s Babbitt said his district is also looking for ways to increase revenue.
Athletic boosters are being asked to give more money to help support the Blissfield athletic program, according to Babbitt.
“The more you do through boosters, the less you have to eliminate,” Babbitt said.
According to Babbitt, the district is also looking at increasing student fees to participate in sports, know as “pay to participate.”
Currently Blissfield charges $40 per sport for middle school athletes and $80 per sport for those in high school.
While raising pay-to-participate fees would bring revenue, Babbitt said it could also discourage students from participating.
“Part of the conversation has been to increase it, but we might lose kids that can’t afford it,” Babbitt said. “We have to find that fine line of what’s too much. We have to think about everybody. “
Cheboygan’s Parker he doesn’t expect to implement an increase in the $75 fee the district’s athletes pay.
The MHSAA’s Johnson cautioned that pay-to-participate fees could backfire on schools.
“The fees could cause school districts to lose kids to a neighboring program and the state aid that goes with them,” Johnson said. “Then all of a sudden they have become counterproductive.”
Johnson said while sports come after academics in importance, they complement the learning done in a classroom.
Additionally, Johnson said students who play in sports generally have better grades, attendance and behavior.
According to Johnson, schools need to weigh cuts against positives sports bring.
“We can’t risk cutting these programs because the outcomes will be even more negative than we can imagine,” Johnson said.
© 2011, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.