By George B. Sánchez, Staff Writer | LA Daily News
July 22, 2008 - Just four months after Los Angeles Unified began charging for after-hours use of its fields and facilities, one of the San Fernando Valley's biggest youth sports groups is seeing a dramatic drop in some of its club memberships.
Valley Youth Conference officials had feared the potential backlash from the controversial higher rates and now say the group's Valley Falcons football club in the East Valley could be in jeopardy.
"Usually about this time we have 60 to 75 kids signed up," said Falcons coach Santos Juarez. "Right now, we have about 13. We're in a real dilemma."
Without at least 16-18 kids, the team will be unable to play this season, club President Virginia Quiroz said.
The membership slump is the first clear sign of what hundreds of nonprofit youth groups had feared when the LAUSD kicked off its pay-to-play program earlier this year with a three-tier fee structure designed to offset annual facilities costs of $3.8 million.
LAUSD officials defend the fees, however, saying they are needed in the wake of state budget shortfalls that have strapped the district.
LAUSD officials cut more than $350 million from the district budget as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger trimmed $3 billion in funding from K-12 education.
Superintendent David Brewer III said last year that the new fees would cover the nearly $4 million in facilities costs.
"This is framed by the cutbacks by the governor and the budget crisis in education," said Kathryn Friedman, manager of L.A. Unified's civic center permit program. "This is not something we did lightly."
District officials considered imposing the new fees three years ago, but public outcry against the potential loss of affordable after-school programs forced the school board to abandon the proposal.
But the LAUSD isn't the only agency charging new fees for fields and facilities. The city's Department of Recreation and Parks recently raised its activities fee by $5 and has a new charge of $10 for permit applications.
Now, with a struggling economy also taking its toll on Valley residents, officials with the Valley Falcons say the less-expensive early bird registration still has only drawn 10 players.
While late registration is not uncommon - and some athletes arrive even three weeks after the first day of practice - the low numbers this year are unprecedented.
As with all 16 sports clubs that make up the Valley Youth Conference and use LAUSD fields and facilities, the Falcons were hit with fees for practice and game space this spring.
The fees took effect March 1, when the LAUSD implemented a $77.10 flat charge for a permit, $5 daily custodian fees and an hourly rate of $10 for the club and up to $30 an hour for night use of football fields.
The club hasn't been billed yet, but is expecting to pay $4,000 to $6,000 once its permit and schedule are approved to play at John H. Francis Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley, Quiroz said.
That means the club has boosted its participation fees by $50 per athlete, she continued, which is difficult to charge considering that many of the club's kids come from one-income families getting by on about $1,500 a month.
"The parents were aware of this since last year," Juarez said. "Gas prices are going up. Food prices are going up. Now our prices are going up. The economy is taking a toll on our parents."
Youth groups that charge admission or have concession stands pay the same permit and custodian fee and are charged between $25 and $45.50 an hour for events.
"We are not making a dime on this," Friedman said. "We're trying to recoup our out-of-pocket costs. This is not rent."
With more than 9,600 elementary and junior high students involved, the Valley Youth Conference fields teams in football, track, basketball and cheerleading. And conference officials said if they are unsuccessful in fundraising, they will be forced to pass at least some of the increased costs on to participants.
"These costs will drive it up almost $100 per kid this year," said Bill Speer, publicity director for the conference. The new fees amount to more than $210,000 for the conference overall, he said.
The West Valley Girls Softball league is in the same boat.
For the past nine years, more than 350 girls and up to 80 women have played softball at Charles E. Hughes Middle school in Woodland Hills.
"We haven't paid anything for the field until February of this year," said Dana Ashton, president of the softball league.
Now, he estimates that the league is paying more than $2,600 a month to practice and play games. If it can't cover the new fees through sponsorships and fundraising, the cost will likely be passed on to players, he noted.
For now, they pay $100 to play in the fall league and $190 in the spring.
"We want to stay there," he said. "Hughes has always been our home."
He estimates that over the years, the team has invested about $70,000 in the school to pay for new bleachers, a sprinkler system, an awning and maintenance.
Reza Shahmirzadi, former commissioner for the American Youth Soccer Organization, Region 71, which covers Woodland Hills, West Hills and Canoga Park, said new permit fees from the LAUSD and the city will eat up as much as 20 percent of the group's budget.
"We're looking at over $30,000 in fees, just for permits," he said.
For the past five years, registration has stayed at $135 per child, but that will increase next year once the group calculates the impact of the LAUSD's new fees, Shahmirzadi said.
"It's going to have a major impact," he said. "For next season, we'll have to collect more for registration."
Monique Franklin, the region's current commissioner, said reserve funding will cover this year's cost, but that the increase will be passed on next year to parents of the 1,400 kids who play soccer with the league.
Friedman estimates that 238 permits a month are issued to youth groups leasing LAUSD facilities. About 150 high school and middle school sites are available for use, she said, about one-third of them in the Valley.
So far, she said, the LAUSD has not seen a decline in permit requests as a result of the new fees.
"There are very few recreation facilities and we've always had greater demand than facilities available," she said.
The district even goes out of its way to accommodate some groups, she said, including seeking compromises when groups seek the same site, even if one offers higher lease payments.
After the West Valley Girls Softball league applied for its field in the spring, Ashton discovered that Barcelona California, a youth soccer league, also had bid on the spot.
Instead of sharing the field at Hughes, LAUSD officials agreed to help the soccer league find another site, said Rui Guimarais, the club's president. The 200-member club is still searching, he said.
For the Valley Falcons' Juarez, this would be the first time in 40 years of coaching with the conference that he has had a team sit out a season for lack of players.
Money has always been a concern for his team, he said, noting that many kids live in apartments in San Fernando, Pacoima and Sun Valley and can't afford other sports clubs.
Last year, he estimates, he spent about $2,000 of his own money to help his players.
"We normally field seven teams. Now we don't have enough for one," he said. "We might have to skip this year."
Juarez will have an answer soon: The Falcons' first day of practice is Aug. 1.