UNION TWP. — A move to eliminate junior high school sports was modified twice this week by Northwest Area School Board, morphing into elimination of paid coaching staff while still funding equipment purchases.
The board tabled a “pay-to-play” plan that President Randy Tomasacci said will be tweaked and presented again next month. “We agree in theory that there has to be pay to play,” Tomasacci said Friday. “We want to really spell it out so we know exactly what we are passing.”
If the proposal is passed, Tomasacci said he believes Northwest Area would be the first district in Luzerne County to implement a pay-to-play fee.
The initial proposal on the agenda regarding sports cuts was to eliminate seventh and eighth grade programs, but responding to public criticism at the start of the meeting, Tomasacci announced the plan was being modified to cut district funding for sports and try to find community funding and volunteers to fill the gap.
Several parents said they would help out in order to keep the programs alive.
When the vote did come up, board member Michael Kreidler proposed cutting money for coaches but leaving funds for equipment. After some debate that motion was passed.
Tomasacci said the original plan was expected to save about $40,000 and that the new one will save about $29,000. The district is trying to fill a $600,000 gap in next year’s proposed budget.
The agenda also included not renewing a contract with Geisinger Health Care to provide an athletic trainer, which Superintendent Ronald Grevera said costs about $40,000.
But the board got an earful from students, parents and a coach stressing the value of having a trainer at events when students are injured, and the motion was voted down.
The pay-to-play plan tabled would base the fee on a student’s eligibility for the federal free and reduced lunch program, based on family income.
Students who are eligible for a free lunch would not have to pay to participate in sports. Those who qualify for lunch at a reduced price would pay $25, and those who do not qualify for any lunch subsidy would pay $50.
The payments would be per sport, so a triple-sport athlete who does not qualify for lunch subsidies would be paying $150 a year.
Grevera said the proposal, if enacted without changing the fee schedule, would only bring in about $15,000 “to help stabilize the cost of athletics,” but that the board is re-examining it “for equity and fairness.”
Such plans are not legal in all states, but are in Pennsylvania, though the idea hasn’t been widely adopted. Locally, according to Times Leader archives, Crestwood considered a pay to play fee in 2011 but dropped the idea in the wake of public criticism and questions about how it would could be implemented fairly.
A Pennsylvania School Boards Association report in 2010 found that 17.5 percent of 196 districts and non-public schools surveyed charged a fee for interscholastic athletics. All the districts that did charge a fee were rural or suburban.
The PSBA report also cited limited research that suggested “as long as fees are relatively low ($50-$100), participation rates do not diminish significantly.”
The cut in sports is not final. It was part of a “preliminary final budget” the board had to pass before the end of the month.
State law requires school districts to pass a final budget by June 30, and Tomasacci noted the board is still looking for ways to avoid or reduce proposed cuts.
Those cuts included a proposal to furlough six teachers, which drew passionate comment from teachers, students and alumni at this week’s meeting.
Since the meeting, a “Save Northwest” page has popped up on Facebook, with the self-declared mission “to save Northwest from its biggest mistake ever! We are preventing it from cutting off important teachers and pay to play for Jr. High sports.”
While the page calls for fundraising ideas, there is also a call for a student “strike/sit down” Tuesday in halls and stairways. The proposal has prompted prompted criticism in some posts, calling the idea “a bad idea” and warning it “is going to do more harm than good.”
Tomasacci said the district response would be up to administrators and presumably based on rules in the student handbook.