By Melissa Pamer, Staff Writer | Daily Breeze
July 28, 2008 - Youth sports groups in the South Bay and Harbor Area are starting to feel the pinch from the Los Angeles Unified School District's move to begin charging for the use of gyms and playing fields.
The increased fees, which came in March after clubs had for decades used facilities for free, have meant reduced practice schedules and, in some cases, increased costs for players.
The fear is that the fees - which district officials said were needed to make up for an incredibly tight budget year - will force low-income athletes to drop participation in sports clubs, which supporters say give at-risk youth positive after-school alternatives.
"The reality is that less kids might be participating and, with that, then comes the possibility of things that lead to more negative activities that lead to them not achieve academically," said Mike Lansing, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Los Angeles Harbor.
Lansing served on the Board of Education when the possibility of imposing fees was last discussed several years ago. He opposed it then, but acknowledges now that the district's budget, which accounted for more than $350 million in expected state funding cuts, has put LAUSD in a financial bind.
That's the reasoning district officials gave for the new fees, which they said put them on par with, and in many cases below, fees charges by other school districts and municipalities.
"With the recent budget crisis and the cuts from the governor, we're left very little choice," said Kathryn Friedman, who manages the district's civic center permit operations. "We did it with a heavy heart."
The new fee system requires groups to pay $77.10 for a four-month permit, as well as a $5 daily custodial fee for days on which practices and games are held. A fee of $10 per hour applies to nonprofit groups that cater to district students; for others, the hourly fee is $25.50.
Locally, some groups said they were raising funds to cover the new costs - or passing them onto players.
Dig 4 Kids, a nonprofit that offers free, twice-weekly after-school tutoring, exercise and volleyball at Carson High School and Halldale Elementary School in Harbor Gateway, is covering its $500 to $700 increase in costs.
"We can handle the fee. But really what it does, it takes away from the kids," said Eric Fonoimoana, founder and president of the group.
With the money that the group spends to cover the fee, Dig 4 Kids could offer its services to three or four more children per eight-week session, he said.
"The inner city is in need of these after-school programs. They need it more than ever," Fonoimoana said. "Eventually, somehow, the trickle-down will have an impact on (children)."
Despite the higher costs that groups such as Fonoimoana's are facing, there's been no drop in usage since the new fees were instituted March 1, LAUSD's Friedman said.
"We're such a large urban area and there is always going to be so much need," she said. "The city of Los Angeles needs to build more parks. We have basically been the overflow for all of this need."
The district issues about 2,850 permits annually and hosts about 55,000 individual uses of its facilities per year. Its gyms and fields have long been preferred spots for some groups because they were free for many years, Friedman and youth sports organizers say.
The new permits are expected to bring in $1.4 million to $1.9 million this year, Friedman said. Most permits were issued at the reduced hourly cost to nonprofit groups, bringing in less money than the $3.8million expected when the fees were first discussed last fall, she said.
Some organizations in the region are turning to fundraisers to cover the new fees.
Kehlin Hayes, president of the Carson-based South Bay Waves girls basketball team, said two events had been held to cover the $585 needed for the team's Banning High School practice space.
"That's a pretty penny, coming from free," Hayes said. "In addition to the fees going up, gas is going up. That's needed for travel to tournaments. It's difficult for everyone."
Gardena-based South Bay F.O.R. Junior Sports Association has passed the costs on directly to those teams - among about 100 sponsored by the nonprofit - that use LAUSD facilities, said President Mel Iizuka.
Others have questioned the amount of the increase.
"It's ridiculous. It's too much," said Don DeBenedictis, who helms the San Pedro Knights Youth Basketball club.
The group, which has eight teams that practice at San Pedro High School and Dana and Dodson middle schools, was charged about $3,000 for the last four-
month period, DeBenedictis said. That's split up among the 70 to 80 players.
To save money, he said, the teams have stopped their popular Saturday practices.
"The school district's hurting. What are you going to do? Where are you going to look for money?" DeBenedictis said. "I understand it. But I don't like it."