Combined high school athletics?
The buzz around the schools this week was the idea that the Tahoe-Truckee High School Wolverines and the North Tahoe High School Lakers might consolidate to become one athletic team districtwide next year, ending a 25-year rivalry between the two schools.
Tahoe-Truckee Unified School District Board of Trustees, up against an October deadline to notify the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association, refused to consider the possibility on such short notice.
“You do not jump into a community like this where sports are so important saying we’re going to cut sports without a full process,” said TTUSD board president Suzanne Prouty.
Many boardmembers, staff, students and parents voiced fierce opposition to the idea, which spread throughout the community this week. And at a special board meeting on Tuesday afternoon, the board told staff they would not look at the idea on a short-term level.
Gemma said district staff will continue to discuss long-term revenue-enhancement ideas, such as charging for home-to-school transportation and the concept of combining the two high schools to enhance efficiency district-wide. He said hopes to receive guidance from a broad-based committee and ways to cut costs.
Consolidating the athletics programs was just one idea to help cut costs away from academic programs, according to TTUSD Superintendent Pat Gemma. He began discussing this idea with NTHS and TTHS administrators and athletic directors about three weeks ago.
“The motivation is saving money,” Gemma said. “The problem is this upcoming year because the district has contributed less to athletics. More money now has to come from fund-raising and contributions.”
“This is not a proposal,” Gemma added. “It’s an idea we’re sharing with the board. The board wants to know what we can do to cut costs and maintain our programs.”
Both high schools’ teams currently compete in the NIAA in division 3A. If the two programs combined, the TTUSD athletic program would represent a combined enrollment of over 1,300 students, and would be eligible to compete in division 4A, where competition is stronger and against schools mainly in the Reno/Tahoe area. TTUSD students currently travel up to 360 miles away to compete with other schools in their division.
In order for TTUSD to compete in NIAA division 4A for the 2000/2001 school year, the district would need to arrange schedules with NIAA by the end of October. That means school board members would have had to approve the idea at their October board meeting.
TTUSD board president Suzanne Prouty was adamantly opposed to the idea.
“Those sports are absolutely critical for kids in this community,” she said. “I don’t care if the deadline for NIAA is a month away. This is not the kind of decision you can make in a month.”
Prouty, who is a mother of three-all of who are actively involved in sports in Truckee schools, is also a counselor for TGIF Counseling Center. She said based on her work and research with at-risk adolescents, adolescents get in the most trouble between 3 and 6 p.m., the times when team practices run.
“You can’t give athletics a dollar amount,” Prouty said. “It’s so much. It’s helping kids learn to be skilled and resilient.”
The amount of kids involved in sports in this district is quite high. At NTHS, with a population of 510 students, more than 65 percent of students participate in sports. At TTHS, more than 53 percent of the 840 students participate.
If the two programs are combined, the number of student and staff participants would most likely be cut in half, said district officials.
“There are going to be some people that hear about this that are going to be livid,” said Roger Kahn, member of the Measure S Citizens Review Committee. “This is a rural community. For one half of the kids, we’re yanking what little they have to do.”
Besides cutting costs, Gemma identified other reasons the idea to consolidate the athletic programs makes sense. It would cut down on travel expenses by competing closer to home, help athletes get recognized more easily by universities by competing in 4A and it would help unify the district more.
“Some people would like to see the rivalry end and more unification and cooperation,” Gemma said. Before board members said they would not consider the idea on a short-term basis, Gemma was in full support of the idea and said the pluses seemed greater than the minuses.
The total cost of the TTUSD athletics program at both schools is approximately $500,000. This year, the district has committed $250,000 to the program, $50,000 less than the 1998/1999 school year. Last year, the TTHS athletic department was criticized for overspending its athletic budget by $30,000.
To make up for the shortfall, the remaining athletics expenses are covered by athletic fees, fund-raising efforts by each team and contributions. This year the athletic fee is $20 per participant and may go up to $75, according to Bob Schaffer, athletic director, head football coach and math teacher for TTHS.
Schaffer said that with an idea like this, there are many issues that need to be covered such as where practice will be held and how much money would really be saved in terms of transportation if transportation will need to be provided between the two schools.
“It’s going to cause a little bit of hardship,” Schaffer said. “We’re still in the process of looking at how much money we would save.”
He said that it may cause problems for the coaches too, half of whom would most likely be cut as well.
“I think most coaches would like to think it’s status quo,” he said. “But if we combine the program, several coaches will probably be dropped by the wayside.”
He suggested at a special school board meeting Tuesday to ask for a participation fee of $100-$125 per student to help make up the cost of transportation.
“To me, it’s so much more doable than cutting teams or participation,” Schaffer said.
Ed Turner, athletic director for NTHS for the past 20 years, warned Gemma and the boardmembers that they may lose students if the two programs combined.
“If you looked at combining the two schools athletically, you would look at losing a lot of Average Daily Attendance,” Turner said. “Twenty-five years ago, you split the two high schools. I don’t think it would work to bring them back together. You would be looking at a lot of animosity.”
Kahn, who is a parent of two daughters at NTHS who are or have been involved in athletics over the years, suggested increasing participation fees instead of cutting athletics.
“And the kids that can’t afford it can be subsidized by some sort of scholarship,” Kahn said. “The whole idea is we want all the kids to be able to participate. It’s up to the athletic directors to make up their shortfall by coming up with their own game plan of how to get support from the community.”
Kahn added, “I realize the need for athletics is great. There’s a real benefit to being involved. Kids are more likely to take care of their bodies, use their minds and have less idle time. It’s good team building skills.”
At Tuesday’s board meeting, LeBlanc and NTHS principal Wayne Fields were asked to present to the board how they plan to stay within their athletics budget, now that district funding is significantly less. Both principals identified three possibilities: raise participation fees and charge for each individual trip for non-league contests, organize parent drivers for all away games or cut athletic teams and student participation. They agreed the latter possibility is the most drastic.
Gemma said that neither school has yet to prove they can live within their budgets and is worried that athletics will be a tremendous cost to families.
“I don’t want half a year to go by and have the athletic departments tell us, ‘Listen, we’ve been charging x amount of dollars to the parents and now they’re angry and participation is down,'” Gemma said. “We are in a budget crisis. Whenever you’re in crisis you should be looking at everything including the sacred.”
He told the board: “If you don’t want to look at it (the idea to consolidate athletic programs), that’s fine. But I think you should.”
Lakeside boardmember Karen Van Epps was frustrated to be looking at one department to make cuts. She wants to see more equity for all school programs.
“What do we as a team cut? We have to look across the board. We’re going to have to make some cuts somewhere,” she said. “I’m frustrated we’re back on square one looking at one isolated department. This burden shouldn’t fall on the athletic department. It should fall on all of us.”
The projected cost savings of combining the two athletic programs and competing in division 4A has yet to be presented and is still unknown.
“I need to see a detailed plan to deal with this,” said Lakeside TTUSD representative John Wojcik.
Board president Suzanne Prouty warned that the district should not jump into a decision like this in such a short amount of time.
“We do have to make tough decisions, but not in a vacuum. There needs to be a process,” Prouty said. “The main thing is there are not a lot of other things in this community for kids besides sports.”
The board will announce at tonight’s regular board meeting that an October deadline for an idea like this is too soon for the district and something they cannot impose on the community without more time and a thorough process to study all of the details.
The meeting will be held at 6 p.m. at the TTUSD office in the board room, located on Donner Pass Road in Truckee.
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