By Melissa Pamer and Connie Llanos, Staff Writers | LA Daily News
July 29, 2010 - The financially challenged Los Angeles Unified School District will for the first time ask parents to help pay for buses to take student athletes to high school sporting events this coming academic year.
If enough money isn't raised, games could be canceled – a possibility that poses a dramatic threat to sports-crazed secondary schools.
Campus athletic directors will request a $24 per-student contribution at the beginning of fall, winter and spring sports seasons. The goal is to cover $650,000 that was cut from the district's athletics transportation budget.
"If we are not successful, our only recourse would be to have to eliminate some contests – and we absolutely do not want to have to do that," said Barbara Fiege, LAUSD's director of interscholastic athletics.
The request to parents comes on the heels of a $1.4million shortfall in the sports budget that threatened stipends for nearly 600 coaches, endangering their teams' existence.
Led by the youth sports-focused LA84 Foundation, local nonprofits raised funds in the spring to cover that gap. The "Save Our Sports" initiative drew funding from foundations associated with the Dodgers and Chivas USA.
Now the next big challenge is covering a 30 percent cut to the nearly $2.2 million budget for transportation to games, Fiege said. The cuts were made to help address the district's $640 million budget gap for 2010-11.
Across the San Fernando Valley, where high school sports dominate after-school and weekend activities for thousands of families, it is unclear exactly how the new fee will impact programs.
"Those of us that are on the ground are bracing ourselves for how this is all going to roll out, how kids will respond and how it will affect families ... especially those that have more than one child," said Gerardo Loera, principal of Polytechnic High School in Sun Valley.
Loera said while $24 may not seem like a large amount, more than 80 percent of his students are considered low-income and qualify for the free and reduced-cost lunch program. The school's neighboring community has also been hit hard in recent years by a high rate of foreclosures. And while businesses support several programs at this campus, many in the area are also struggling to keep their doors open.
"Adding any additional charges is not a good thing," Loera said.
Tom Hernandez, football coach for San Fernando High, said his students already organize car washes, banquets and bake sales through the year to pay for uniforms, equipment and tournament fees.
The fundraisers spare students any out-of-pocket costs.
"My main concern is that everyone gets to participate and there is no burden on our families," Hernandez said.
Hernandez said coaches and other school staff now plan to ramp up fundraising in an effort to cover the cost of this increase for all students involved in athletics.
"We want to make sure everyone is covered," he said.
Athletic coaches like Hernandez said they are glad to know that generous donations from the professional sports community helped save many of the programs threatened earlier this year.
However, at a time when LAUSD is struggling to establish reforms to improve student achievement, Hernandez said he wishes officials would remember the value that sports have on student academic achievement.
"Everyone talks about keeping kids in schools and off streets," Hernandez said.
"When a kid plays sports they have an adult overseeing them for a good part of the afternoon, they all have to be eligible to play so they have to do pretty good in school, and we get parents involved ... we're doing exactly what is needed to improve the community."
Fiege said the current difficulties were the most challenging she has encountered in her 17 years overseeing of district athletics. "It is extremely different. We have never faced the financial deficits that we have faced this year," Fiege said.
The contribution request will be addressed to the homes of athletes on the district's 1,900 teams in 14 competitive sports, as well as to cheerleaders, drill team and band members and other "auxiliary" groups.
A letter from Fiege that will be distributed to parents reads in part: "The Los Angeles Unified School District is proud of the athletic program and wants to continue to provide these programs to our students. With your help, we will be able to offer all sport teams to our students and our school communities."
Los Angeles Unified School District officials stressed that compliance with the $24 request is voluntary. "We're not calling it a fee. It's a contribution, a donation, not a fee," said district spokeswoman Susan Cox.
Students who fail to make the contribution will not be penalized and will be allowed to play, officials said. And Fiege said any shortfall will be spread out across the district, which includes schools in fairly wealthy and low-income areas.
The one-time fee will cover the student for the whole year, regardless of the number of seasons they play.
"The fact that it's $24 – we hope it's do-able by most families because we want to continue to maintain our program the way it is," Fiege said.