My column for this week's Greater Niagara Newspapers looks at the harsh economic realities of the day in local school districts. Sports are on the chopping block, but they can be saved as the Roy-Hart Sports Boosters have shown quite well...
HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS NEED A BOOST
By Bob Confer
Rick DeWaters and his friends in the Royalton-Hartland Sports Boosters Club did something this year that could be considered miraculous. They saved the school district’s athletics program by securing the funding necessary to keep alive football and fall and winter modified sports, programs that had been victims of budget cuts last spring.
That’s an accomplishment once thought impossible. Roy-Hart is the third smallest school district in Niagara County with an enrollment of around 1,530 students. It’s also one of the poorest: the town of Royalton has a median household income that’s $230 lower than the county median while Hartland’s is $5,270 lower. With those factors in play - as well as the community having already been so maxed out in its investment in the district that it was forced to cut those sports - it was unknown if district residents could dig deep enough to give the school what it needed to keep the kids engaged in competitive endeavors. One sport (football) was certain to be saved, but modified sports, too?
In the end, the community pulled together. They participated in Booster-led fundraisers and fund drives, they donated goods and services to raffles, and they donated their time to Booster activities. They’ve kept Roy-Hart sports alive. With the leadership and experience the Boosters have in place, they’ll be able to save the day again next year when called upon to do so. Goodness knows they’ll have to; Roy-Hart’s financial straits aren’t unique to this school year.
Nor are they unique to Roy-Hart. We live in some tenuous economic times and taxpayers who have seen their incomes cut or their jobs lost by the recession are unable to support ever-growing school expenses, especially with the loss of state and federal funding that was once taken for granted. School districts everywhere will be forced to follow Roy-Hart’s lead and cut sports (among other things).
It’s a very unpopular decision to make, but it’s truly a wise and necessary one. What’s the alternative, cut teaching positions and academic programs? You can’t, for schools are, first and foremost, learning institutions. As harsh as it sounds, athletic pursuits rank lowly among a school district’s best interests because there is minimal bang for the buck when looking at the student body as a whole.
In a small district like Roy-Hart far less than half of a given class might participate in school sports. In a larger district, like the Lockports of the world, much less than a fifth of a class is active in sports. When faced with an economic crisis, you certainly cannot sacrifice the enrichment of many pupils’ minds for the advancement of the athletic affairs of a select few. Even in good times it’s a questionable investment: Why should townsfolk direct their taxes towards one boy’s football adventures while not doing so for another lad’s participation in the Boy Scout program? Both activities are hobbies and are as equally important to the development of those boys.
But, that does not discount its value. Just as necessary as a book-driven education is to the students, so is the experience-driven education that comes with sports. A sport may be "just a game", but there is so much more that comes from it if properly channeled. High school athletes can learn any number of life skills ranging from personal fitness and work ethic to teamwork and sacrifice to preparedness and adaptability, things you just can’t get in a classroom. The fields and gymnasiums give the perfect outlet for achieving all of those, while at the same time, developing a powerful sense of community pride, not just for the players but also for the district residents at large.
School sports serve a great purpose, one which cannot be ignored. But, athletes and their parents can no longer consider them to be freely supported by the taxpayers. We live in a new day, one where parents must take an active role in ensuring that the sports are there for their kids. They need to put in some extra hours outside of practice and games, working with donors throughout the area to put money in the athletic department coffers.
It’s a difficult task, but not an insurmountable one, and the Roy-Hart Boosters have shown – far better than most – that working together we can all guarantee that today’s children have the same chance to compete that previous generations had.