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Mansfield perplexed over threat to sports

Mansfield High School junior varsity baseball player Steve Nagle waited with teammates for a bus to take them to their game in Franklin. Mansfield High School junior varsity baseball player Steve Nagle waited with teammates for a bus to take them to their game in Franklin. (Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe)
By Peter Schworm and Emily Sweeney
Globe Staff / April 16, 2010

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MANSFIELD — Residents of this middle-class suburb knew public schools were proposing cuts in teachers and services to close a budget gap, but few were prepared for the news that rippled through town yesterday, that the School Committee had voted to eliminate high school sports.

“Mansfield is a really big sports town,’’ said Kevin Mutascio, a senior at Mansfield High School. “No sports. No drama. No band. No orchestra. It seems kind of surreal.’’

Facing a $1.8 million budget gap despite dropping 44 staff positions including some teachers, School Committee members said they had little choice but to eliminate sports, a move that would be a first in Massachusetts’ budget crunch. But even as members of the panel insisted their decision was no idle threat, many in town were skeptical, and suspected that officials are trying to exploit residents’ fondness for high school sports to galvanize public support for a possible tax override later this spring, and pressure teachers into accepting contract concessions.

“I can’t see it happening,’’ said Christine Hernon, as she watched two of her children compete yesterday in a track meet at Mansfield High School, which boasts top-flight sports facilities. “People will start sending their kids to private schools. It doesn’t make sense.’’

Across the state, calls to eliminate high school sports to avoid teacher layoffs and other spending cuts have intensified in recent years. But even in the bruising budget battles of the past few years, the threats have never become reality. And many now see such declarations as public relations ploys meant to rally public support.

“In some cases it’s used to push a tax override, and in others it’s used to increase the budget,’’ said Paul J. Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association, the state’s governing body for high school sports. “You take the most popular thing and say, ‘It’s gone, unless we do something.’ People usually respond.’’

Still, the Mansfield vote reflects a growing trend to privatize the cost of interscholastic sports, Wetzel and others say. As schools struggle with soaring health insurance and special education costs, they are increasingly shifting the expense of sports to those who participate, both on the field and in the stands.

A majority of Massachusetts public schools now charge students to join athletic teams and rely more heavily on booster clubs and other private donations.

“Boosters used to sell coffee and hot dogs at the football games, and that was about it,’’ Wetzel said. “Now it’s much more organized and much more significant.’’

After Hull voters rejected a $1.6 million tax increase last spring, school officials cut the entire athletic budget, but private sponsors and parents picked up the slack.

Athletic directors said that just 3 percent of a typical school budget goes toward sports, while well over half of students play on at least one team.

Participation in sports, they added, seems linked to academic success.

Yet several athletic directors said they understand why athletic budgets are under siege at a time of intense financial pressure.

“The reality is, they are extracurricular activities,’’ said Barry Haley, athletic director at Concord-Carlisle High School. “The bottom line has to hit somewhere.’’

Haley said Concord-Carlisle, like many schools, relies far more now on fees, gate receipts, and fund-raising than in the past.

With many residents already fuming at the rising cost of public schools, that’s not likely to change anytime soon, he said.

“The dynamic has changed,’’ he said. “In an ideal world, should a public education include athletics and other activities? Yes. But in the real world, I pay taxes like you do.’’

In Mansfield, that sentiment was front and center, and few were shedding tears for the schools’ financial woes.

“It’s a scare tactic,’’ grumbled longtime resident Bob Goscinak, who was picking up tax forms at the town library. “The money is there. We pay enough taxes to have kids playing sports.’’

But Jean Miller, who chairs the School Committee, said drastic measures are unavoidable.

“I never thought I’d see this day,’’ she said. “We are all deeply pained by this.’’

Miller said the committee had discussed charging students to play, but concluded it would not generate enough revenue to save the program, which costs about $650,000 a year.

“This is not fake,’’ she said. “If you look at the numbers, we just can’t make up that huge of a gap.’’

Miller said she hopes Town Meeting, which meets early next month, will have a chance to finance the sports program. But George Dentino, a town selectman, said a tax-override measure is off the table for now.

He called on municipal unions, which are currently in contract negotiations with the town, to agree to concessions, and said teachers should voluntarily agree to wage and raise freezes after years of generous pay increases.

Students, meanwhile, are furious that they might lose the chance to play sports, and many predicted it will spark mass exodus to other schools.

“Kids are already talking about transferring,’’ said Dylan Finerty, a sophomore who plays football and lacrosse. “I don’t think it’s a wise decision.’’

One way or another, the fact that towns are increasingly shifting the financial burden of sports to others and broaching the topic of eliminating them altogether appears to be a sign that money pressures are forcing hard decisions.

“If we had people pay as much attention to academics, we’d be in much better shape,’’ said Thomas Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. “But what it comes down to is what we mean by public education.’’

Globe correspondent Christine Legere contributed to this report.

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