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Kanawha levy failure could result in extra fees for families

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.

Still, after years of watching pay-to-play programs grow to maturity and then multiply over the last decade, Smith thinks they should be seen as a last resort.

"What can happen is what you see in amateur sports outside of school -- it becomes a program for the elite and that is absolutely not what high school sports should be about," he said.

"In most high schools, you might not be first-string on the football team, but there's someplace that you can participate in sports if you want to and put the work in ... but if we're going to charge fees and they're very high at all then only those that can afford will play."

It's not always that drastic, he said. Often, districts make allowances for lower-income students, usually by using a sliding scale for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch because of their family's income.

So while many people fear that pay-to-play will result in total stratification based on socioeconomic status, Smith said more often the consequences are less severe: students who play more than one sport drop the one they don't like as much as the others, or the one they're not as good at. 

"If you're going to be on the court or the field Friday night you're going to find a way to pay that fee," Smith said. "But if you're third string you might not come up with that 100 dollars or whatever it is."

The impact that those changes could have on schools is up for debate.

G.A. Buie is a principal in Eudora, Kan., and president-elect of the National Association of Secondary School Principals. More than half of the schools in his conference have a pay-to-play policy, and he said his experience with them has been largely positive.

"We understand that our activities are so important to our kids but so are academics, so we're going to try to let the parents support the activities in addition to what they support with taxes," Buie said. "I think once you get over the initial change which is difficult for anything it's really not too bad"

The pay-to-play charges in his suburban school district are relatively low, in the $50 per activity range, and he says officials haven't seen a large drop in the participation rate.

If he'd seen that, he would worry the system wasn't giving all students equal access to the same programs. But as it is, he's just happy the system has found a way to continue to offer a broad range of extracurricular activities.

"As challenges continue to come up educationally one thing people always want to take away is sports, but I can tell you those are some of the most important things that we do that enhance what we do in school," he said.

"Plus, there are so many carrots we use to keep kids motivated academically ... when you take that away sometimes they don't have the motivation to go to school, or to do well in school."

The crux of the pay-to-play debate is just how "extra" extracurricular activities are. Their status -- as either an integral part of a student's education or as little more than an aside to their academic pursuits -- is still being debated nationally. It's likely that, if voters opt out of the additional property tax with the special election, that debate will soon come to Kanawha County.

"Our people in Kanawha County are very used to a lot of services that we give our kids," Duerring said. "And we're at the point now where we're going to have to examine it ... we've got to stay to the basic mission of the school system, to educate our children, and say we're not going to stray from that."

Early voting for the excess levy begins Saturday at the Voter Registration Office at 415 Quarrier St. in Charleston. The special election is Nov. 9.

Contact writer Shay Maunz at shay.maunz@dailymail.com or 304-348-4886.


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