CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- As they ramp up for the Nov. 9 special election for another excess levy to benefit Kanawha County schools, education officials are painting two landscapes for voters:
In one, the school system has the benefit of another $24.4 million the first year it takes effect, in 2014 and annually over the five-year levy period. In the other scenario, the levy fails, the school system doesn't get that money -- and officials are forced to make a series of money-saving cuts.
Those potential cuts, which would be made to offset a projected $4.5 million deficit next year, and even larger budget gaps in the following years, have been called "drastic" by Superintendent Ron Deurring, and "draconian" by board member Bill Raglin.
Chief among them is the threat, repeatedly voiced by board members over the last several months, of withdrawing at least some district support for extracurricular programs at the county's schools -- effectively establishing a policy to charge students to participate in school athletics and clubs.
Such policies, termed "pay-to-play" or "pay-to-participate" were first dreamt up decades ago, and have proliferated across the country in recent years. But if it went this route Kanawha County would be the first school system in West Virginia to enact such a policy.
Liza Cordeiro, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said there are some districts that use a system like pay-to-play, though somewhat watered down: if a football player wants to purchase a pack with extra equipment or a T-shirt, they can, or if a cheerleader wants an extra hairpiece they might have to pay for it.
"But if you're talking about a very traditional system, where you have to pay to even play, we don't know of anything like that here," she said.
There's no word on what Kanawha County's pay-to-play system would look like -- officials are hoping to instead offset the deficit with the passage of the additional excess levy next month, and the numbers are still elusive.
School board President Pete Thaw, who has been actively campaigning against the levy's passage in the name of easing the burden the school system places on taxpayers, maintains that other cuts could be made within the system without resorting to charging for extracurricular activities.
He recommends starting with the school system's central office, which he says is home to a bloated bureaucracy.
"They always want to cut the ice cream and the cake," Thaw said of the school officials who are supporting the excess levy, which includes the four other board members. "They never want to even discuss beef and potatoes."
Pay-to-play has become an increasingly popular way to fund athletic programs across the country, though. The most recent data, from 2009, shows that at least 33 states have districts that use some kind of pay-to-play system.
In the most common systems, students pay a fee -- anywhere from $15 to $1,500 a year -- to participate in sports, clubs and other extracurricular activities. Sometimes they're capped, so a family won't have to pay exorbitant fees because they have so many children, or because their child plays several sports.
In the most drastic scenarios, the fee system funds the entire athletics program; it doesn't receive any support from the school system.
"It's got to be something we look at," board member Robin Rector said. "We've got to find money somewhere if this (excess levy) fails. And you've got to look at what others in similar situations have done to try to glean some wisdom from it."
Scott Smith, chairman of the Department of Physical Education and Sport at Central Michigan University, has studied pay-to-play for years. His research, conducted a decade ago in Ohio, is some of the only done on pay-to-play.
Smith looked for a link between pay-to-play programs and participation rates and found some evidence of one. Basically, his research shows that as long as fees stay relatively low -- say, in the $50 to $100 range -- there's little to no impact on participation. As the fees grow more expensive, fewer students will participate, though Smith stresses that it's impossible to accurately predict a policy's impact on a district.