Budget crunch forces area high schools to call audibles

When the current school year ends, so too will an established way of doing things for numerous area high schools.

As schools throughout Illinois await promised state money, the lack of available funding now is forcing many districts to implement cuts as a means to curb spending.

The depth of reductions varies in scope, with only a few districts expecting little or no differences in 2010-11 in comparison to this year.

Area athletic directors hope this is only a temporary pattern and not the start of an overhaul which will be massive in nature.

"I am cautiously optimistic that the state will get things figured out and schools will get their money," Centennial athletic director Brian Easter said.

Another reason for optimism, Fisher athletic director Ben Derges said, is because "for many schools, the amount of money they need to cut from their budget is much grander in scale than the relatively small amount spent on athletics."

For example, at Heritage, Principal Andy Larson reports high school athletics encompasses "about 4 percent of our budget," which includes coaching stipends but not transportation.

At nearby Shiloh, the athletic budget figure is closer to 2 percent, according to Principal Mark Hettmansberger. That percentage does not include either coaching increments or transportation costs.

On the horizon

Changes are forthcoming at Argenta-Oreana, Mahomet-Seymour and Oakwood.

Oakwood has eliminated its freshman teams in basketball and football as well as dropped assistant coaching positions in boys' and girls' basketball, volleyball and wrestling.

A-O is instituting a three-step reduction plan. About $16,500 will be saved by suspending the purchase of new uniforms. The supply and materials portion of the budget will be slashed by 10 percent, and the admission price to attend high school or junior high events will be increased.

At Mahomet-Seymour, the athletic budget will be trimmed by 10 percent, but athletic director Matt Hensley said not all areas will be affected the same.

"It's a little misleading," he said. "Some line items can't be reduced. We can't reduce what we pay officials."

The school also will work with one paid coach in boys' cross-country and one paid coach in girls' cross-country, half of what it had last fall.

Valuable volunteers

M-S has found a creative way to maintain a sizable coaching staff in sports such as football, which can give a false impression to casual observers.

"We split a lot of our stipends, so it may look like we have a lot of coaches," Hensley said. "We have five paid positions in football, but we may split that between eight or nine people."

The use of volunteer coaches is an option that some districts are pursuing. Oakwood athletic director Tim Lee is appreciative of those who willingly donate their time, but added, "While I am thankful for the volunteers, I do not want to build my athletic program on volunteers. You want well-paid, well-trained people in those positions when you can get them."

Making plans

Iroquois West and Armstrong-Potomac are among the schools that will trim nearly one-third of their scheduled games in baseball and softball. Iroquois West will drop its schedule from 35 games to 24 in those spring sports in 2011.

A-P principal and athletic director Darren Loschen said the Trojans will start with a 25-game schedule in those sports, but in reality, fewer games may be played.

"We will not make up any games that are not conference games, if they are rained out," Loschen said.

Shiloh is instituting travel restrictions, though Hettmansberger said "we will honor any existing contracts with schools that require long travel, but as contracts expire, we will not renew contracts with those schools that are not considered local."

Exceptions, however, could be possible.

"Our booster club has always been a great supporter of our programs," Hettmansberger said. "If they want to pick up the tab for some of the travel, we will consider keeping some of our contracts with schools from outside the area."

Hensley said M-S remains committed to "filling our schedule," but said the look of the opponents could change.

"If we have to play a team multiple times in freshman baseball, we will do that rather than reduce our opportunities and let schedules dwindle and dwindle," he said.

Loschen and other ADs in the Vermilion Valley Conference will discuss a proposal today to schedule away baseball and softball games simultaneously at the same school.

"Schools that wish to may then use one bus for both," Bismarck-Henning athletic director Tom Johnson said.

Hettmansberger sees so much merit in that concept that Shiloh may investigate following the same procedure in the fall.

"This could also happen with volleyball and JV football," he said.

Solid ground

Champaign's two public high schools, as well as LeRoy and – to a degree – Unity do not anticipate being hit hard by changes next year.

"Things are on solid footing at LeRoy," athletic director B.J. Zeleznik said.

In fact, while neighboring districts are tightening their belts, expansion is in the works in the eastern McLean County community.

"All schedules will remain intact, and we are adding a couple of paid coaching positions for next year," Zeleznik said. "We will be breaking ground on an all-weather track facility and are working on plans to potentially build an auxiliary gym facility."

Unity's changes may not be obvious to fans who simply watch games or view the schedules. Athletic director Scott Hamilton said "we've had to make some pretty serious cuts in a lot of our supply accounts and uniforms (about 20 percent), but we won't be forced to drop any games and we don't have any travel restrictions."

When possible, Unity will try to avoid taking yellow school buses on road trips.

"We will try to make better use of the school mini-bus and school vans to help out with the transportation costs," Hamilton said.

Easter said the situation within Unit 4 is relatively stable.

"Our district has been able to find other means of cutting revenue as opposed to cutting athletics," Easter said. "We'll be OK."

Generating money

Some of the potential options to deal with shortfalls are not attractive to area administrators. Fundraising could generate revenue, but Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley athletic director Mike Allen doesn't favor the concept.

"We do not send our athletes door-to-door fundraising and do not plan on starting that," Allen said. "The economy is rough on everyone, and we don't need to ask people to donate money when they might be having a difficult time themselves."

Another pitfall of fundraising is the inequity which could exist within a school as different programs fend for themselves.

"Teams that are larger will generate more money and teams that are smaller will generate less money," M-S' Hensley said. "I don't think that's a very good environment to create."

Raising admission prices for games is a possibility, but Arcola athletic director Nancy Stiff said there are disadvantages with that idea as well.

"Doing that really makes it hard on individuals with families," Stiff said.

Sometimes, however, solutions are not ones people would prefer.

"We do not charge admission to softball, baseball or track events," Stiff said. "We may start doing that to help offset the costs related to these programs."

Activity fees (pay-to-play) are in place at some schools. Those charges could increase or be added for districts that don't currently ask for payment from students.

"Right now, our athletes pay a one-time $35 fee for the school year to participate in extracurriculars," Iroquois West athletic director Hanns Meyer said. "We have discussed raising the participation fee."

One benefit to the students who pay the fee at IW is that they are admitted free to any home athletic event during the school year.

A-O also is considering raising the amount of its participation fee, which is currently $60 per year with a maximum of $120 per family.

Meyer sees the role of booster clubs expanding.

"We will probably depend on the boosters for 'needs' now rather than just 'wants,' " he said.

Losing numbers

As for the future, Hamilton and his colleagues are in agreement that much depends on whether the measures currently being taken are just the start or can be the end.

"I cut $22,600 out of our athletic budget," said Hamilton, who is in charge of the high school and junior high programs at Unity. "If I have to cut another $22,600, that next round of cuts will be much more difficult.

"Now all of a sudden you're looking at getting into some programs (being reduced or eliminated). If you cut at the junior high or freshman levels, you're directly hurting the varsity sports."

That feeling is shared by Oakwood's Lee, who hopes the district's ninth-grade basketball and football teams eventually can be reinstated.

"I hope these programs come back very soon," Lee said, "as I think they are important.

"We also lost some assistant coaches that are going to put a real strain on our coaching staff. We will have to look at eliminating some of the things we do within a sport because you can't expect fewer coaches to do the same amount of work."

Paxton-Buckley-Loda athletic director John Overstreet said it is "more than likely," that his school will drop some underclassman games. His concern is how that decision will impact future varsity teams.

"At the lower levels, with fewer games, you will not get as many kids out later in high school," Overstreet said, "and when you are a smaller school, you need numbers."

Staying in the game

Stiff is concerned about what lies ahead.

"I can see administrators perhaps suggesting on cutting back the number of invitationals we participate in relating to all sports," Stiff said. "These tournaments have become quite pricey."

Her concerns are echoed by Bismarck-Henning's Johnson.

"The future of high school athletics is somewhat foggy," Johnson said. "I feel there will always be an effort made to provide at least a minimum program. On the short term, we may see an unlevel playing field as some schools opt to drop lower levels and others opt to keep them."

Fisher's Derges thinks one solution will be for districts to find a way to get by.

"I think athletics will be asked to pinch pennies by reducing coaching staffs, wearing uniforms longer, avoiding big-purchase items and finding creative ways to reduce transportation costs," he said. "I will be surprised if many schools begin cutting entire athletic programs or the mainstream teams."

Heritage's Larson is adamant that athletics should not be eliminated.

"This is a big part of why kids work to stay eligible," he said, "so they can play sports. I will fight to keep our sports programs up and running until the end. It is too important for student development."

Fred Kroner is The News-Gazette's prep sports coordinator. He writes a weekly high school-related column throughout the school year. He can be reached by fax at 217-373-7401, by phone at 217-373-7401 or at fkroner@news-gazette.com.

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