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To play, you pay

As districts slash funding, many high school sports programs rely on athletic fees and private fund-raising for their survival

By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent / August 29, 2010

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Playing high school sports may be primarily about talent and team spirit, but these days, it’s also about money.

Students stand outside stores, cans in hand, appealing for donations. Parents struggle to pay higher and higher fees. Booster clubs organize events they pray will draw crowds with deep pockets. Athletic directors sweat over every expense.

Except for a fortunate few, most cash-strapped communities south of Boston supplement school sports budgets with user fees. This year, a lot of those fees are higher, and one town is imposing a fee for the first time. But in Hull and Weymouth, which have no town-supported budgets for high school sports, programs are scrambling for every cent they need to stay alive.

In the living room of Jeff and Ellen Wallace’s Weymouth home is a series of clipboards with sign-ups for a golf tournament, soccer jamboree, and other upcoming fund-raising events.

At Weymouth High, captains of sports teams — and their parents — are expected to lead when it comes to fund-raising, so the Wallaces, whose son Matt is a soccer captain, are “captaining’’ the boys’ soccer fund-raising.

“We realize the town is struggling just to provide basic services,’’ said Ellen Wallace, a Quincy teacher. “We just feel fortunate I’m able to make the time to do this.’’

“One of my jobs is to spread the word on what’s coming up and making sure people are getting involved,’’ said Matt Wallace, a senior who plays several positions for the Wildcats.

Kevin Mackin, the Weymouth High athletic director, has asked each sport at the school to try to be self-sufficient. “Our booster groups are fantastic,’’ he said, citing such inventive fund-raisers as the Wildcat 5K and the New Year’s Day Plunge. “They’re necessary and important to all our programs.’’

In 2008-09, the schools wiped out funding for athletics, forcing the programs to resort to a combination of fund-raising, user fees, gate receipts, and ad revenue. Last year, Weymouth was able to spend $100,000 on sports, but that vanished for the upcoming school year because of a townwide fiscal crisis.

Mackin said it would take about $300,000 from all revenue sources to keep programs intact for the upcoming school year.

“That’s a fluid number, because we’re constantly looking for ways to reduce the budget,’’ he said. “We look at limiting equipment purchases, the cost of non-league games, making sure we’re not going long distances. We cut costs wherever we can. We focus on our true needs, not our wants.’’

In 2009, the fund-raising group for Weymouth High boys’ soccer raised about $20,400, before expenses, from can drives, an indoor soccer tournament, raffles, dance, a soccer jamboree, and a golf tournament, and covered $14,345 of the program’s costs, including the salaries of two assistant coaches.

In Hull this past spring, high school administrators, students, and parents had allowed themselves to dream about a summer with more fun than fund-raising. But for the second year in a row, Hull High will start the school year with no money in the budget for sports or other extracurricular activities, after voters rejected a $2.3 million property tax-limit override in May.

The money had been earmarked for the schools, mainly to add teachers and decrease class sizes in a system that has lost 40 positions in the past two years. A portion also was going to restore much of the athletic budget and pay for other extracurriculars, such as theater.

“I think I gave myself about 15 minutes to feel bad for myself and the kids and then started planning for next year,’’ athletic director Jim Quatromoni said. “We’re disappointed, no doubt about it. But we’re back at it, raising money. The fall seasons are a go.’’

Last year, the athletic budget was pasted together from a variety of sources: $54,000 in user fees, $26,000 in gate receipts, $30,000 in private donations, and $83,000 from the Hull Boosters Club fund-raising. All 15 varsity interscholastic sports teams were saved, albeit often with reduced schedules.

Quatromoni didn’t purchase any equipment, and volunteers took over the game-day support staff jobs such as scorekeeper and ticket takers.

Athletic fees this year will be $200 per sport; $250 for football and hockey. With the fees, money already raised, and planned fund-raisers, Quatromoni and the School Committee gave the go-ahead for fall sports, but warned that the battle is not over.

“If we don’t stay focused on raising money, there’s still the possibility that we could lose one or more sports in both the winter and spring seasons,’’ he said.

Nancy Sullivan, president of the Hull Boosters Club, said her group never stopped raising money, even as they hoped the override would pass. “It wouldn’t have given us the full amount we needed,’’ she said.

Sullivan, whose daughter is a cheerleader, said “colleges are looking for well-rounded students,’’ and she wants Hull High students to be able to list activities and sports on their college applications.

In Abington, after the failure of all eight questions in a $1.59 million override election in June, fees for student-athletes at the high school were raised from $150 to $250 per sport.

The Greenwave Booster Club has taken over responsibility for funding sub-varsity sports at the high school. “They’re doing a great job,’’ Abington High athletic director Steve Moore said.

There are just three nonvocational public high schools in the suburbs south of Boston without fees — Brockton, Randolph, and Foxborough.

“We’re very fortunate, “ said Mike McGrath, the Randolph High athletic director. “It’s allowed us to build our teams and programs.’’

Randolph High dropped fees and restored junior-varsity sports after a $5.48 million override passed in April 2008, and Brockton officials say fees would create hardship for the 64 percent of the students at the high school who are classified as low-income.

In Foxborough, athletic director Craig Najarian has credited the absence of fees with allowing the 900-student school to compete against larger schools in the Hockomock League.

Last spring, Mansfield High, where 800 of the school’s 1,500 students play at least one sport, went from having a full athletic program with no fees to joining Hull and Weymouth as having no town-funded budget for high school sports when, on April 16, the School Committee cut a number of teaching positions and all sports, drama, music, and other after-school activities.

Finally, after four agonizing days, a compromise was reached; the high school instituted user fees of $175 for the first sport, $125 for the second, and $100 for the third, and the rest of the budget was restored.

“I think instituting user fees was a sign of good faith by the schools to the town,’’ athletic director Joseph Russo said. “It made the compromise on the budget easier. We went from the sadness of the vote last spring to not having to cut any programs for next year.’’

Sullivan said she doesn’t see fees going away, and wonders how long Hull residents can afford to be as generous as they have been. “We’re not the only ones in town looking for money,’’ she said. “The drama people, the library, the land conservation group — everyone’s doing it. I was in the supermarket recently with a friend who saw someone collecting and said, ‘You can’t go into the supermarket anymore without being asked for money.’ There wasn’t much I could say. It was a member of my group collecting.’’

Rich Fahey can be reached at faheywrite@yahoo.com.