By Ramona Shelburne, Columnist - LA Daily News
05/25/2008 — Why is it always the good stuff, the stuff that makes things special, that gets cut when times are lean?
Why do we always need to resort to nickel and diming our way to balancing the budget?
Is it really less painful that way?
Over the next couple of years, every kid who plays sports in the Los Angeles Unified School District will find out as the district attempts to get through these lean economic times by cutting into nonessential expenses and raising revenues from facility usage.
First up on the chopping block: Funding for championship venues. In other words, the City Section has probably played its last football championship at the Coliseum, its last basketball championship at the Sports Arena and its last volleyball championship at Cal State Northridge.
And first up to the cash register: Youth groups like the Valley Youth Conference, a nonprofit, tax-exempt group that runs Pop Warner football leagues, AAU Track, AAU basketball and cheerleading programs for 9,600 kids in the San Fernando Valley eachyear.
In the past, groups like the Valley Youth Conference were able to pay a nominal fee to use LAUSD facilities, but now they are being asked to pay hourly permit fees for every game, every practice, even every meeting they hold at a district field or classroom.
"It's probably going to put us out of business," said Bill Speer, the director of the Valley Youth Conference. "Next year, we're looking at about $200,000
in extra fees. And we've got no choice but to pass that on to the kids. We're worried that a lot of them aren't going to be able to pay it."
There is a compelling argument for charging fees for for-profit groups that use district facilities, but Speer doesn't make any money in his capacity as Valley Youth Conference director. He's been a detective with the LAPD for over 30 years and donates his time, energy and money to the Valley Youth Conference because he's seen firsthand the positive impact sports can make in kids' lives.
The Valley Youth Conference has also donated money to the high schools whose fields it uses, providing a large percentage of the funding for things like snack shacks and lights and fields at Canoga Park High, San Fernando High and Van Nuys High.
But next year, the 12 Pop Warner teams the organization operates will have to charge approximately $100 more in yearly fees (from $300 to $400) to offset the new facility fees.
And it's not just private groups. Effective immediately, City Section programs will have to pay a $77.10administrative fee to apply for a permit to play at a district facility, then pay a rental fee of $10an hour and a custodial fee of $5 an hour.
The only way to waive those fees is if all the teams participating in the activity are from LAUSD schools.
"Basically, if we want to play against schools from outside the district that can give us a different look, we have to pay for that different look," Birmingham football coach Ed Croson said.
For now, Croson has elected to play only against City Section schools and save the money for the summer passing league tournaments against top Southern Section competiton.
But each school, and each team, will have to make it's own decision.
Then there's the issue of championship venues. Sure, a game can be played anywhere, but having them at such historic sites is what makes them memorable for the players, coaches and schools.
City Section commissioner Barbara Fiege seemed sick over the situation. She doesn't want to cut, but it's not completely her choice. So she's trying cut where it does the least harm.
"Although we believe that our student-athletes deserve to play in these venues, this may not be possible in the upcoming years," Fiege said. "What we don't want to do is cut participation opportunities."
Still, Fiege seemed sad that it's come to this and is determined to find solutions to the problem
"In the past, I've had to rearrange schedules with the Dodgers (for the City baseball final) and I always call some of the coaches and say, `How do you guys feel about that?'
"And they always say, `We would play at 2 a.m. if that's when we had to because it's so special, such great place to play,"'she said.
It's going to take creativity and generosity to solve the issue, but there is hope.
Already, the City Council has figured out a way to fund LA 36, the cable access channel that televises City Section championships but was on the chopping block in the mayor's initial budget proposal.
The championship venues can be saved, too. In other cities, professional and college teams donate the facilities for schools to host their championships, or charge a nominal fee. It's good community service, good public relations and good business. And it really doesn't cost that much money. All of the site fees are in the five-figure range.
Fiege said some of the venues the City Section works with have been open to the idea.
The new facility fees will be harder to roll back, at least in the short term. It's revenue the City badly needs to balance the budget. But if the revenue can come from somewhere else, be offset by private donations, or is no longer needed, the fees don't have to be permanent.
The good news is that the City Section has a leader in Fiege who understands the value of these "special" things and is looking for creative solutions.
Nickels and dimes don't seem like much when they're taken individually, but when you add them all up, the cost is enormous: All the good stuff is gone.