Winning isn’t everything, except in cash games

Athletic directors and district administrators grapple with ways of keeping teams afloat

The term “pay to play” doesn’t sit well with Jerry Cleek. “You hate to see it happen,” said the long-time athletic director for Paradise High. “I don’t want to see kids be left out because of financial impact.”

Budget cuts approved by the district would’ve put junior-high sports into the hands of the parks and recreation district. Athletic programs would then be turned into club sports, for which participants would have to come up with all the money.

A reprieve came just a week before school began. A week ago Monday (Aug. 6), the district found out it would have to keep the programs because of a loophole in teachers’ contracts—namely, that they include money for teachers who also oversee extracurricular activities, such as sports.

“We are obligated to pay for these positions,” Superintendent Steven Jennings said. “We were ready to go [with the parks and recreation district], but we found out that we weren’t in a position to do it at this time.”

Paradise Intermediate School Principal Mike Ervin covets the opportunity to keep sports in-house. The funds involved in the proposed cuts pay only for uniforms and officials to referee games. The money for everything else, including transportation, is provided by parents, private donations and even teachers who give from their salaries.

“It’s really rare that the junior highs have athletics,” Ervin said. “I feel pretty fortunate that we’ve had it at all.”

This isn’t the first time threat of cuts has loomed over school sports in the district—or other schools in Butte County for that matter. Sustaining teams and programs has become a routine challenge.

Four years ago, the idea of cutting freshman athletics was tossed around at Oroville High School. But the athletic department worked out a deal with the district to form a Parent Teacher Student Association committee, helping generate the $48,000 a year needed to keep the freshman sports around.

Oroville High generates most of the money to pay for its program through football and basketball ticket sales, and supplements that income with various fundraisers, including an annual golf tournament in June. Athletic Director Tom Aldridge estimates the school raises between $200,000 and $300,000 for sports.

PLAYING THE FIELD<br />Chico High’s junior varsity football team practices on campus. The school can’t afford to build a football stadium, so the Panthers’ home games are held at Chico State.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“One of my biggest concerns as athletic director is not running out of money,” Aldridge said. “We make a ton in fundraisers. We do everything you can possibly imagine.”

Apart from coaches’ salaries and transportation costs, the athletic department receives $15,000 from the district to pay for safety equipment such as shoulder and knee pads. If Aldridge had his way, he would see more money for the upkeep of the sports complex his program shares with Las Plumas High School.

Chico High and Pleasant Valley High, meanwhile, are bracing for upcoming budget cuts. Their athletic departments will lose $11,000 each for the 2007-08 school year, according to Scott Jones, fiscal services manager for the Chico Unified School District.

As in Oroville, district money funds Chico schools’ transportation costs. With the escalation of gas prices, the transportation budget for Chico High sports has risen 25 percent in the past two years.

Athletic Director Bob Hanson depends on the money that comes from the district along with ticket sales and fundraising. His major gripe is that his school can’t afford to build its own football stadium, which has forced the Panthers to use Chico State’s University Stadium.

“Finance is the biggest problem,” he said. “With that [lack] of money, it really makes it impossible to improve our facilities.”

In Paradise, Cleek sees the facility matter differently.

“I don’t know if is has to do with cuts or it’s just the reality of it,” he said. “[That money] tends to come from bond issues or state money to build schools.”

Interestingly, while Paradise junior highs had to face down sports cuts, Paradise High School’s athletic department enjoys a healthy budget from the district—not to mention an avid boosters club. When funding isn’t available for special projects, help from the community becomes essential. Last month, boosters donated $30,000 to re-sod the football field, and they helped install it, too.

Success breeds success: The football team went 11-1 last fall, the baseball team finished 28-8-0, and both the boys and girls basketball teams had winning seasons.

Cleek and Jennings both acknowledged that budget cutting is a reality that high school athletic programs must deal with on a regular basis. As a result, projects such as facility upgrades get pushed back.

“When you make cuts,” Cleek said, “generally the other things can’t get done.”