Thursday, November 10, 2011

Should rural school districts cut athletic programs?

Oregon's North Bend School District experienced a financial feast and famine of different sorts in 2009. In the spring, the district eliminated 16 employee positions due to a state funding shortfall. That fall, contractors installed a video screen, scoreboard and sound system in the high school's football stadium, home to the Bulldogs. An anonymous alumnus picked up the $200,000 price tag.

While these capital upgrades didn't affect the school's bottom line, some residents started questioning the need to fund sports teams. During the next year's budget talks, the district's school board cut some coaching stipends and limited travel costs, but it left the athletic program largely intact.

North Bend is not alone. The past few years, budget-strapped school districts across the country have eyed sports fields for savings. Mansfield, Massachusetts, population 23,184, voted to eliminate its athletic department in spring 2010, only to have private boosters spare the program. Oregon schools in Hillsboro, North Clackamas and Forest Grove have stopped funding tennis and golf, forcing those teams to seek financial support elsewhere.

Supporters of high school sports justify the expense by pointing to heart-warming stories like the Tikigaq Harpooners. The high school is located in Point Hope, which sits on a spit jutting into the Chukchi Sea. The school has fewer than 60 students and no road access to the rest of the state. Despite these challenges, the school's boys basketball team has won the 2A Alaska State Basketball Championship three years running.

But those trophies have come at a price. The team travels to away games by plane; sometimes flying 12 hours to face an opponent. The school builds (and maintains) sports facilities. And with No Child Left Behind sanctions looming for any school that doesn't show significant progress in core academic subjects, it must be tempting to jettison a sports program to pay for another math teacher or two.

This question is particularly troublesome for rural Oregon schools. School funding comes from the state, which distributes money based on school enrollment. As rural economies falter, families leave the area, taking with them their children and the education funding that follows them.

While scuttling a sports team to protect classroom budgets may appear attractive at first blush, rural school districts have been wise to keep their athletic programs. For one thing, federal studies have found that rural children are more obese than their urban counterparts, suggesting more athletic opportunities are needed, not less. And unlike urban areas, where private club teams are common, rural schools often provide the only athletic opportunities.

High school sports also help define rural communities. Unlike metropolitan areas, which can have college or professional teams, rural townsfolk often rally behind their alma maters. When Coos Bay's high school football team reached the state playoffs in 2008, it played a team in Portland. Despite the four-hour drive from Coos Bay, the stands had more fans clad in Pirate purple and gold than in the home team's colors. A running gag in Coos County is that the best time to commit a crime in Powers, population 689, is when the Challengers football team has a road game, because the entire town goes to watch.

High school sports can also bond students to the community. North Bend's anonymous donor probably played football himself. Assistant coaching positions offer Bulldog graduates an incentive to stay at home, instead of fleeing to the Willamette Valley like many of their peers. And those who stay also have the opportunity to follow their former teams on a constant basis. With urban areas offering many attractions, rural communities would be loath to remove a source of pride and identification.


JT said...

I agree that athletic programs are a vital component of rural education. Beyond the benefits you mention, athletic programs are also important for building character in growing students. It teaches them important values such as teamwork and determination, resilience and diligence. Additionally, what about the benefits of athletic scholarships? The investment in human capital? While these aren't exactly tangible benefits in the short-run, they are something to also take into account.

Courtney Taylor said...

Being that there are often less opportunities for rural students to attend college, I think it's important to note that most research says that athletes have better attendance, higher grades, and are less likely to abuse drugs than non-athletes. Participating in an activity that encourages staying off drugs would seem especially important in rural areas, where meth is common.

While doing a little research online, I also found a study published in the Harvard Educational Review in 2002 that found that sports are one of the most effective intervention programs for low-status, disadvantaged students. That would further suggest that sports programs are particularly important in rural communities with high poverty rates.

princesspeach said...

Your question posed is whether rural school districts should cut sports programs. I am confused as to why sports funding is vilified. Many of these programs, as you said, are funded by boosters and fundraising. I know for my high school teams we were always selling candy, participating in car washes, and seeking donations. Since it is outside fundraising, many schools do not have to choose cutting employees over sports teams. In your example of the new scoreboard in a district where employee positions were cut, the scoreboard was a gift, so it’s not like the school had to make a choice of one over the other. Similarly, in the Alaska example, we do not know how the school is faring in its core academic subjects, so it seems quick to assume their funding of planes is at the cost of student learning. Alaska is very sparse, so for them chartering a plane could be like my high school chartering buses security for us.

Even if rural school districts cut all spending towards sports teams, I think you will see many rural alumni and citizens fund the teams on their own. They see the benefits of these teams for the students and for the town. JT and Courtney have done a good job of explaining these benefits.

JLS said...

I also agree about the importance of athletic programs, in rural American and elsewhere. Beyond what JT and Courtney have mentioned, high school sports can lead to athletic scholarships, opening the door to college to many who otherwise couldn't afford it.

But, there should be balance. Support the sports teams, yes. But a $200,000 scoreboard? That money might be better allocated elsewhere. Especially in the case of a budget shortfall.

Amusingly, the North Bend story almost exactly mirrors a plot line from the TV show "Friday Night Lights," about football in a small Texas town. The show addressed the jumbo screen vs. teachers debate in its third season. (See this episode:

Azar said...

As someone who participated in a variety of high school sports (as well as many extracurricular activities), I want to echo the sentiment that has been shared by most of the comments.

Music, sports, and other valuable extracurricular activities are the LAST things that should be cut. These are the programs that make kids WANT to go to school and be successful; they contribute more than anything else to youths' abilities to grow as people and to become successful.

Moreover, its been rightfully mentioned that much of the funding comes from boosters, donors, and parents themselves. I realize that you have to prioritize budgets, but high school athletic and extra-curricular programs should be at the top of the priority list of things to keep and fund.

oceguera said...

Sports and extracurricular activities are critical for youth development. Imagine if there were no funding for programs outside of the classroom-youth would not stand for a 9 hour long session of lectures. I wouldn't! Doing things outside of class inspire and motivate people. However, in being realistic, there are those who see sports almost like a religion to be committed to (i.e. the recent riots over the Penn State scandal). I think a balance needs to be struck, if there is going to be so much attention and effort in ensuring the football team plays well then those commitments should be made to the drama club or journalism club.

Jason said...

I think the benefits that school sport programs provide are extremely hard to measure. I wouldn't completely credit high school sports, but I know that thing taught at home like hard work, dedication, consequences, team work, sportsmanship, problem solving, how to communicate with others, and self control were all re-enforced in school sports.

I was lucky to have great role models and teachers at home where I first learned these attributes. Others may not be so lucky and playing on a team can be a valuable learning experience.

JWHS said...

We also need to keep in mind that every school doesn't need every sport. On a pure budget consideration, sure these things shouldn't be cut, but sometimes the team just isn't worth keeping around. Keep in mind, schools are't just cutting the big programs, they do try to take a holistic approach to decide which program should be cut.

After all, what else are they going to cut?

KB said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KB said...

When I read the headline of this post, I instantly wanted to compose a scathing letter to the administration of the school that was cutting its athletic program. My reaction comes from my personal experience. I benefited enormously from participating in athletics at my rural high school. I agree with what other commentators have said- the benefits of high school athletics are numerous and donations fund many athletic programs, making it difficult to justify the dismantling of a high school athletic program.

In addition, I want to emphasize something JWHS said. Reducing programs is understandable in certain situations. In some rural communities, athletics are the only thing the school can cut or reduce because it has no other extracurricular activities. Music, drama, and other programs do not always exist. This also means, though, that athletics play a more important role in the lives of those rural students who do not have other extracurricular opportunities.

Even if the community or nearby communities offer other activities, for low-income students, high school athletics may be the only affordable extracurricular activity. Families that are more financially stable may be able to give their children athletic or artistic opportunities in another town nearby, while low-income students likely will not have the same alternative. As the author and other commentators have stated, athletic programs are too important to many rural communities to allow them to disappear.

ROCCO said...

(for a project only)yes..schools should cut athletic programs beccause school students are to much focused on the sports and not their grades.and schools spend to much money on sports an dnot enopugh on school..cant afford new textbooks,school supplies,print paper,etc.

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