Teenagers who dream of putting on a uniform and representing their school in front of hundreds of adoring fans now have to do more than just practice to meet their goal.
These days, if you want to play, you’ve got to pay at several high schools around the country and in Southwest Connecticut.
The Oxford Board of Education just became the most recent in a growing list of local school boards that ask students to pay to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities in an effort to save money in their operating budgets. At $75 per student per season, Oxford – which has a school board that hopes to save $40,000 this budget season through pay to play - will be on the low end of the spectrum when it comes to how much students have to pay to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, such as band or choir.
In neighboring Monroe, students, and/or their parents, are asked to pay a whopping $390 per sport that has a referee. The school system recently implemented a cap for families, which most school systems have and Oxford will implement as well. However, the price can be even higher at Monroe and other schools for hockey, which requires students to shell out an additional $100 to pay for ice time, according to the student handbook, though some parents say the cost for ice time is even higher.
The pay to play philosophy is not new, but is becoming increasingly controversial as it becomes more popular. Stuck in a Catch 22 situation, school boards are trying to cut back on operating costs because of the tight economy while at the same time charging parents - many of whom are struggling due to the lagging economy - what many say amounts to an additional tax because their children play sports.
Most schools have a fund set up for teens whose families cannot afford it – in Oxford, those who are on free or reduced lunch because of low income will likely have the pay to play fee waived. But part of the argument against pay to play is the fund for the poorest students doesn’t help working families that may not meet the income requirements for financial help but are still living paycheck to paycheck.
Part of Education?
Although most, if not all, students still have an opportunity to participate in extracurricular activities, there are those who believe the policy discourages children from participating in sports and ultimately leads to other problems.
Norman Winnerman of Danbury, the former athletic director at Danbury High School and now the executive secretary of the Southwest Conference, said he believes pay to play discourages families from signing up their teens to play school sports. "Why should they play sports at the high school level, where usually only the best students get playing time, when they can play in recreational or other leagues and probably play more?" Winnerman questioned rhetorically.
He believes sports and other extracurriculars are an extension of education and, therefore, should be provided by the community.
“If the Board of Ed and the community agrees that these are important facets of education, and it’s a public school, then they should pick up the tab on it,” he said, noting that he was speaking for himself, not the SWC. “And if it’s not, then don’t have them.”
He said families are already shelling out enough money for the children to play sports, between equipment such as basketball sneakers, which can be in the hundreds of dollars range, cleats, gloves, bats, hockey sticks and other items; even the band has to pay for its own instruments.
Pay to play can also lead to friction between parents and coaches over playing time. Parents who pay for a sport oftentimes want to see their children get on the field; they feel they should get what they pay for.
“Coaches deal with this a lot,” Winnerman said.
Another societal problem that leads to pay to play, he said, is that in Connecticut, we still pay for a majority of public education through property taxes, making it that much more difficult to ask taxpayers to fund things like extracurricular activities.
Paying for everything ‘just not feasible’
Still, there are some who support pay for play.
For example, Monroe Board of Education Chairman Darrell Trump is an advocate for the policy.
“I’m a believer in pay for play with the caveat that we don’t put undue stress or pain on our parents, because it is an extra privilege some students take advantage of and others don’t — so the parents should pay for some of it,” he said.
However, as Winnerman alluded to, Trump said the school district should also take into consideration that families are already paying for equipment, shoes, game tickets and holding fundraisers.
"There’s a fine line between gauging the parents and having pay for play," he said.
Trump said economic pressures have definitely led to pay for play, adding that two years ago the Board of Education's requested spending increase of about 6 percent was cut all the way down to 1 or 2 percent after several referendum defeats.
"If the following referendum had not passed, whether or not to have a football program was on the table," Trump recalled. "Do you pay for football or math, English and science? We were almost there two years ago."
Despite its tremendously successful sports programs, Trump said Monroe has done a poor job of funding sports over the years. At Masuk, he said, "We have crumbling cement bleachers, light poles that are falling over, and not until three years ago did we put in a rubber track."
The junior varsity football players wear hand-me-down jerseys from the varsity team, using duct tape to cover over the previous players' names, said Trump, whose two sons played football at the high school.
"We have pink pants because of it being washed with red jerseys," he added.
In fact, it took 17 years before the Masuk Band got new uniforms, which were bought last season, he said.
"I wouldn’t disagree that the district should pay for everything," Trump concedes, "but, economically, it's just not feasible."
While pay to play has recently come into vogue in school districts, it has been in effect in Newtown since the 1980s, when that school district became among few in the country to implement such a policy. Students pay between $100 and $200 to participate, depending on the sport.
Some school districts have eliminated pay to play. For example, in wealthy Fairfield, the school board recently eliminated the policy.
In Brookfield, the school board discussed getting rid of pay to play, and the superintendent’s original budget proposal called for pay to play’s elimination. Still, it was reinstated for the current year.
School board members in Brookfield say they have not seen a dip in numbers of children playing sports – in fact, they have seen an increase – since pay to play has been in effect.
No Stats on Pay to Play
The state Department of Education does not keep statistics of which school districts have pay to play policies.
What is known is that the pay to play policy is not unique to Connecticut: some reports indicate that 33 states have pay to play, but an article in the Danbury News Times recently states that only California does not have such a policy in any of its high schools.
Unofficial surveys of news stories nationwide show no towns with stories of teens not being able to participate because of pay to play. This school year, Oxford hopes that it won’t be the first.
Patch editors Bill Bittar and Hoa Nguyen contributed to this report.