Wednesday, July 23, 2008



July 23, 2008 - When Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa introduced his $1 million Summer Night Lights program a few weeks back, he was injecting a good dose of common sense into the city's anti-gang efforts.

After all, the program is designed to provide L.A. youngsters with evening events, so as to keep them out of trouble. And everyone knows that giving kids organized and constructive activities is a great way to keep them out of trouble.

Everyone, that is, except for officials in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Four months ago, the district decided to start charging community groups to use school facilities for after-school programs. This "pay-to-play" plan, while saving the district a piddly $3.8 million out of its $7 billion budget, has proved to be a back-breaker for many community athletic programs.

Take the Valley Falcons football club in the East Valley. According to Coach Santos Juarez, the team usually has 60 to 75 kids signed up by this point for the fall season. Now, it has 13. Juarez and other Valley Youth Conference officials worry that they won't have enough players to field a single team, let alone the usual seven.

The drop-off in membership can be attributed in no small part to the LAUSD's new fees. The various charges come to about $50 per athlete - a steep hit in a community where many families live on roughly $1,500 a month or have multiple children's fees to pay.

Other Valley Youth Conference teams - which serve some 9,600 elementary and junior high school students in football, track, basketball and cheerleading - estimate that the per-kid cost could reach $100 unless, through fund-raising efforts, they can significantly offset the cost.

No doubt, the sagging economy and the rising prices of food and gas play a large part in the drop-off in participation in many youth sports programs. With many families struggling just to cover the basics, extras like sports leagues may be out of reach.

But that's what makes the timing of the LAUSD's new fee structure so harmful. It comes at precisely the time when families can least afford it.

And it comes, perversely, at a time when the city is desperate to contain its gang epidemic, with the mayor and everyone else scrambling to find ways to keep kids engaged in wholesome activities - and off the streets.

It also comes at a time when the LAUSD's dropout crisis is in the news, with the state finding that nearly one-third of all high school students in the district never make it to graduation.

How many of these students' academic careers are derailed by the lures of gang life?

And how many more of these kids would stay in school if the district weren't nickel-and-diming youth programs that serve as an alternative to gangs?

Given that the district loses state money when students drop out, L.A. Unified has a financial interest - to say nothing of its moral obligation - to help these recreational programs stay afloat. Reducing the influence of gangs among the student population would also decrease the amount the district has to pay to secure and police its campuses.

It seems that the district's pound-foolish scheme to charge kids for using its fields is most likely not even penny-wise. The economic benefit is minimal at best, and the social cost is severe.

What's more, the plan is also an affront to Los Angeles taxpayers.

The parents of children who want to use LAUSD fields during off-school hours aren't freeloaders. They've already paid for those fields - we all did - through taxes and multiple school bonds over the years to build up L.A. Unified's campuses.

Indeed, when the district made the case for its bond measures, officials argued that these new campuses wouldn't only be new schools, but also functional community centers, serving a full range of community needs.

And yet now, when the need for youth sports programs is so great that City Hall is spending millions to create new ones, the LAUSD is charging millions to drive ones we already have out of existence.

Pay-to-play must go - before any more damage is done.

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