Some student athletes in Snohomish County see new fees, fewer opportunities

No one wants to pay more for less, but that’s the predicament some student- athletes and their families face in the coming months.

Thanks to statewide budget cuts and ballooning costs, local school districts have made significant changes to their athletic programs for the 2009-10 school year.

One way to counter the drop in funding is by adding or increasing sports participation fees, known as “pay-to-play fees.” At the same time, some local districts are eliminating teams and coaches — thereby decreasing opportunities for athletes — and limiting transportation.

In Lake Stevens, the school board added an $80-per-sport participation fee for students in grades 9 to 12, and a $40-per-sport fee for middle schools. The district also cut 18 coaching positions. Lake Stevens High School lost funding for several sophomore/C teams, including football and basketball.

Usually consisting of freshmen and sophomores, sophomore/C teams are one level above freshmen squads and a level below JV. Many Western Conference schools have opted to eliminate C teams, which are not required in the league constitution. In some cases, that means more athletes will be cut.

Lake Stevens High School football coach Tom Tri worries the one-two punch of new fees and fewer opportunities to play will discourage kids from turning out for football next month.

“It’s really a recipe for disaster,” he said.

Athletes who would have played on the Vikings’ sophomore football team will spend more time on the sidelines during junior-varsity and varsity contests.

Brady Pahukoa was on Lake Stevens’ sophomore football team last season. The sophomore-to-be plans to stick with the sport but knows it will be different.

“The opportunities will be slim,” Pahukoa said. “A lot of people won’t get as many reps as they want to, even if there’s a lot of talent, just because there’s older kids and (they) get a lot of playing time.”

When Pahukoa and his peers heard funding for the sophomore team was eliminated, “a lot of kids just thought, ‘Oh, I’m not even going to play football. There’s no point,’” he said.

Of course, without making cuts or adding fees, sports reductions would be far worse.

“No one likes to lose a program, but no one likes to lose teachers and lose offerings in the education realms, either,” Lake Stevens High athletic director Ed Bailey said. “It’s a necessary evil to offset some of the (funding) cuts.”

The Everett and Granite Falls districts also added pay-to-play fees, while several other districts increased existing fees. Most districts offer a full or partial fee waiver for students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch.

No fees for some

There are no pay-to-play fees in Stanwood.

For now.

Tom Wilfong, Stanwood High’s athletic director, said he has nearly $90,000 less in his 2009-10 sports budget compared with the 2008-09 school year. The school district cut eight sub-varsity high school coaching positions. JV golf teams and several sophomore/C teams are gone.

On the bright side, Stanwood did not add pay-to-play fees. The fees might discourage kids from playing multiple sports and make athletics unaffordable for families with several athletes, Wilfong said.

“Luckily, our district was well off enough where we didn’t have to do that,” he said. Fees might be considered next year, he added.

“Things are going to get worse,” Wilfong said. “Nobody’s going to expect anything to get better.”

Like Stanwood, the Mukilteo School District avoided adding a pay-to-play program. Instead, Mukilteo cut seventh-grade sports and JV golf. Following public concern from parents and community members, ninth-grade sports and middle school swimming were saved after initially being among proposed cuts.

“I’ve decided that the (ninth-grade) teams should continue for at least another year because they play such an important role in the development of athletes as they progress from middle school to high school,” Mukilteo School District Superintendent Marci Larsen said last month in a statement.

Tough decisions

Tom Roys usually loves his job as Arlington High’s athletic director. He helps kids find opportunities to have fun and learn about hard work and perseverance.

Sports programs are a key part of a healthy education system, said Roys, who also teaches math at Arlington. “There are things you can teach on the playing field that you might not be able to get done in a classroom,” he said.

Athletes in Arlington won’t have as many chances to learn those sports-related lessons in the upcoming academic year. The district cut 10 high school assistant coaching jobs and dropped JV golf and C-team baseball.

“It’s a tough time being an athletic director, having to make really hard decisions,” Roys said. “When it comes down to it, every cut you make really hurts an opportunity for a kid to compete.”

Arlington’s pay-to-play fees — $75 per sport — will stay the same. The fees generated about $42,000 in 2008-09, Roys said.

Some of the tough cuts affect not only the kids, but the athletic directors themselves. The Granite Falls School District eliminated its high school athletic director. Now former AD Mike Hahn’s tasks — which included coordinating schedules and supporting coaches — likely will be shared by Granite Falls’ principal and assistant principal, school district spokeswoman Kathy Grant said.

Getting to games

Transportation cuts vary from district to district, but most athletic directors said they told coaches to limit travel to nonleague games in 2009-10.

For example, a Western Conference North Division boys basketball team will play a nearby Wesco South Division team this winter instead of taking a more costly bus trip to play a high-profile Tacoma squad.

Most local teams already do separate fundraising for special long-distance and out-of-state treks.

The nationally prominent Lake Stevens High wrestling team might replace one of its usual winter trips with a 16-team tournament to be hosted in the Vikings’ gym. It would provide a nice financial break for families struggling to make ends meet, said Bailey, the school’s athletic director.

“They’re doing their part,” Bailey said, “and (Lake Stevens wrestling coach Brent Barnes has) always been good about understanding the big picture.”

Help from boosters

Thanks to an assist from a group of parents and supporters, Edmonds-Woodway High School football coach John Gradwohl won’t lose a valuable part of his program.

As at Lake Stevens, funding for the sophomore football team was eliminated at Edmonds-Woodway High. Lake Stevens and Edmonds-Woodway are among a handful of Class 4A schools that have enough participation to offer a fourth gridiron squad.

Gradwohl, who over the past 13 seasons built E-W into one of the state’s top programs, said the Warriors’ sophomore team is vital.

“I need that team. It helped our program get to where we’re at,” said Gradwohl, whose varsity squad made the Class 4A state playoffs four straight years from 2004 to 2007 and lost a winner-to-state game in overtime last season.

Despite the funding cut, E-W will keep its sophomore team because of financial support from a rejuvenated booster club. The 2009 season will cost a few thousand dollars, Gradwohl estimated. Expenses include transportation, officials and stadium managers. The team already has uniforms, equipment and coaches.

The 144 kids expected to play football at E-W this fall now will pay $100 instead of $40. About 35 of them will be on the sophomore team, competing in a challenging league that features other top-notch programs such as Skyline, Bothell and Woodinville. Instead of watching older teammates from the sidelines all fall, the players will gain valuable experience that will prepare them for future varsity clashes.

“What’s the whole purpose for turning out?” Gradwohl said. “It’s so you can play.”

Mike Cane: mcane@heraldnet.com. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.

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