Cracked and decrepit from overuse, the bleachers in the basketball gymnasium at Tahanto Regional Middle/High School in Boylston were becoming a liability. Budgets were extremely tight, and school officials had nowhere to turn.
"It was an unsafe situation," said Sue Boudreau, the Tahanto Athletic Booster Club treasurer. "We had to do something."
So Boudreau and other members of the club settled on an audacious plan: a $50,000 private fund-raising campaign for their local public high school, part of the Berlin-Boylston regional district. Two years later, after vigorous appeals for contributions and a $25,000 donation from the philanthropic Fuller Foundation, the new bleachers stand inside the gym, a testament to grass-roots determination.
As school districts face increasing costs, dwindling funding, and financially strapped municipal budgets, local sports advocacy organizations are helping to fill the gap. And in many cases, the fiscal troubles are forcing the booster clubs to become pivotal players in shaping the quality of athletic programs at high schools across the state, said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Traditionally, booster clubs have dwelled on the fringes of athletic programs at public high schools, raising money for nonessential expenses such as end-of-season banquets and team T-shirts, said Wetzel. However, their role is rapidly changing as schools become harder pressed to fund core athletic programs, he said.
"Eight or 10 years ago, booster clubs were not all that active," said Wetzel. "Now, they are going all out with much more extensive programs. And in some cases, they are raising money just so they can field the team."
The fiscal problems have driven local athletic clubs, parents, and athletes to extremes in a few instances. At the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, an athletic group has formed to underwrite the entire cost of a new football program for next fall, an expense expected to run $65,000.
Many booster clubs have been transformed into critical tools in the fight to protect high school sports programs. Todd Chisholm, president of the King Philip Sports Boosters Club, said his organization has drastically expanded its reach in the last few years, and now pays for items such as weights and batting equipment that in years past were covered by the regional school district, which draws students from Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham.