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High school sports budgets: A level playing field?

As local schools face teacher layoffs, some are wondering why more isn’t cut from sports budgets

POSTED: March 21, 2009 11:41 p.m.
Scott Rogers/The Times

The Johnson High concession stands at Billy Ellis Memorial Stadium stay busy with customers during a recent soccer match.

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Even folks who might have warmed the bench in high school get a rush under the glow of Friday night lights.

From their seats in the stands at North Hall High’s Brickyard or in the gym at Gainesville High School, locals can see the love young and old have for high school sports.

Gainesville Athletic Club President Jeff Stowe has a name for Gainesville’s rowdy student section: "The Amen Corner," where members faithfully show up at every football and basketball game flaunting posters, foghorns and painted chests.

Yet as state budget cuts to education and dwindling local revenues force systems to lay off teachers, some taxpayers wonder if cuts will hit school sports budgets as well.

Following a month in which 100 Hall County teachers and at least five Gainesville teachers were laid off, Gainesville resident George Beasley asks if school systems have slashed coaching positions equally.

"You’ve heard about cuts in the classroom, nurse cuts, but you haven’t heard about sports cuts," he said. "And I’m talking statewide you haven’t heard about sports cuts. ... I think there is too much priority on sports and not enough on education."

But coaches haven’t been immune from the recent layoffs, Hall County spokesman Gordon Higgins said. At least two teachers who double as coaches, both at Chestatee High School, were laid off this month, he said.

In Hall County and Gainesville schools, the only taxpayer money spent on sports is funneled into teachers’ coaching supplements. Ticket sales and booster club funds support everything else, from equipment to summer camps and uniforms, Higgins said.

Hall County deputy school superintendent Lee Lovett says the system budgeted $1,111,572 for coaching supplements in the 2008-09 school year. Higgins said that covers 43 coaching supplements at each of six high schools.

Gainesville schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer said her system spends about $243,100 on coaching supplements at Gainesville High School. She said 47 teachers receive stipends for time spent coaching high school and middle school sports.

Dyer said all Gainesville coaches serve as teachers during the school day, and must perform well in the classroom. Both Higgins and Dyer said their systems have no plans to cut coaches.

"If a coach were getting laid off, it wouldn’t be because they were or weren’t a coach," Dyer said. "It would be because their teaching performance was not there."

She said good coaches also tend to be good teachers.

Higgins echoed Dyer’s emphasis on coaches’ roles in the classroom. He pointed to Flowery Branch High’s Hazel Hall, who teaches business education and also serves as head girls basketball coach. And there’s Darrell Skogman, who teaches Advanced Placement Calculus at Chestatee High School and coaches soccer.

"For the most part, every coach we have that’s in a supplemented position is also a certified teacher who is teaching with us. So they’re under a teaching contract, first and foremost and the coaching is a supplement or an extra," Higgins said.

"A lot of people may be under the impression they’re like the Atlanta Falcons or the Georgia Bulldogs, where the only things these guys or these ladies do is coach."

Higgins said the Hall County school board approved a coaching supplement schedule a few years ago that caps coaches’ salaries and the number of school-funded coaches a sport can have at a school.

High schools are allowed one head football coach, an offensive coordinator, a defensive coordinator and four assistant coaches, according to the Hall County supplements schedule. The head coach is eligible for the highest salary of any coach, his supplement equal to 17 percent of his state base teaching salary. That supplement is capped at $6,600.

The county system allows for three baseball coaches, with the head coach earning 8 percent of his base salary. Three coaches are also allowed for basketball teams, boys and girls, with head coaches earning 15 percent of their state salary. The county system allows for one soccer coach per boys or girls team, with coaches earning 8 percent of their salary.

Coaches for girls teams with boys team counterparts earn the same percentage for coaching supplements.

Higgins said for some sports, like soccer, cutting its only coach would eliminate the sport.

At Gainesville High, Dyer said head coaches are doled out a limited sum of money they can use to hire as many coaches as they deem necessary. She said Gainesville head football coach Bruce Miller was given $81,000 this year to spend on coaching supplements, including his own stipend of $15,000.

"A football coach could say, ‘I’ll give up part of my supplement because I’d like some extra help with the ninth-grade team,’" Dyer said.

The Gainesville system employed 11 football coaches this year for the eighth-grade, ninth-grade, junior varsity and varsity teams, Dyer said.

The next highest Gainesville coaching supplement is paid to boys and girls basketball coaches, who together receive $34,900.

Dyer pointed out the system also provides $35,100 in academic supplements to teachers who sponsor other extracurricular events, such as yearbook club, school newspaper or National Honor Society. Gainesville High department heads receive $12,800 in academic supplements. Gainesville High’s band, drama and chorus directors earn supplements totaling $37,000.

Beasley recalls having fewer coaches on the field in high school days past. Yet Hall County school officials said seven football coaches are needed to provide adequate supervision and instruction for teams that often have more than 100 players.

Higgins said when broken down by the hour, some coaches are likely to earn close to minimum wage for time spent coaching after school, on weekends and during the summer. He said if a head coach wants more assistant coaches beyond the county’s set number, volunteer coaches from the community are allowed, but are not paid from school funds.

Hall County schools Superintendent Will Schofield said he does not view county sports programs as overstaffed and doesn’t see much fat to be trimmed.

"I can remember just in my career, when there didn’t seem to be as many coaches for sports," he said. "But sports have grown, and the value of extracurriculars in the eyes of the community appears to have grown."

School leaders also point to the ticket revenue football and basketball teams generate for sports budgets that help pay for operating costs and other needs.

For example, Higgins said that after expenses, regular season football ticket sales for Flowery Branch High generated $51,758, which helped fund nonrevenue-producing sports such as cross country and tennis. In addition, the school netted $72,000 from the state playoffs, $36,000 of that from the state championship game at the Georgia Dome.

Wayne Vickery, athletic director at Gainesville High, said it’s clear football and basketball programs help other school sports survive.

"Other coaches don’t want to hear it, but I’m sorry, football is a driving force," Vickery said. "But that’s the way it is in the South. ... Whether people like it or not, football pays the bills."

Dyer said that’s definitely true at Gainesville High, where the football program funds about 75 percent of the system’s athletic budget. Before operating expenses were taken out, ticket sales for Gainesville High football games brought in $83,589 last fall, she said.

Stowe said the majority of the Gainesville Athletic Club’s funds also are related to football. He said the club has raised about $105,000 this year, which can be spent on pricey items such as football equipment or a $10,000 track pole-vaulting landing pad. He said at least $60,000 of the club’s funds come from business ads for the football program.

Stowe said the club makes about $30,000 a year off concession stand sales at all sporting events except for football, which the band’s booster club operates. The remainder of booster club funds come from membership fees, which range from $50 to $1,500.

Unlike Gainesville High, many Hall County schools have a booster club for each sport.

Higgins said booster clubs are nonprofit organizations independent of the school systems. They have their own board of directors, and members vote on how funds are spent.

"They operate to support the school and they operate basically with our blessing. In terms of how they choose to spend their money, we can’t dictate that," Higgins said.

Schofield and others point to the large sums of money booster clubs and high school sporting event ticket sales raise as testaments to how much this community values high school sports.

"It’s a supply and demand," Schofield said. "You can argue anything you want to: Great schools have strong athletic programs, they have strong fine arts programs, they have strong academic programs. And it’s hard to put a price on what that community pride and school spirit is worth. It’s a powerful factor in terms of the success of a school."

Although neither the Hall County or Gainesville school system plans to cut more coaches, Hall County has limited subvarsity sports to in-county competition to reduce transportation costs.

Dyer said she has been studying coaching supplements this past week as the school system prepares teacher contracts for the 2009-10 school year. She will recommend that the school board set coaching supplements at a fixed rate rather than at a percentage rate of teachers’ state salaries. The move would allow for more control over athletic supplement expenditures.

Schofield said the Hall County school system hasn’t rushed to cut any programs yet, so why pick on athletics?

"We haven’t cut foreign languages out. We haven’t cut fine arts out. We haven’t cut mathematics out," he said. "Either we believe athletics has a value to the educational process or we don’t. And obviously, most of us believe extracurriculars have great value, and we wouldn’t just rush to cut programs out."

Stowe said in addition to boosting high school graduation rates, he feels sports provide positive opportunities for kids after school and on the weekends.

"I think people are blowing that out of proportion by saying we could save a job or two by not funding athletics," he said. "What do you give up on the flip side? You’ve got a lot of kids who aren’t participating and enjoying those kind of activities that now start causing problems."

Dyer said she hopes to lead the Gainesville system in establishing fixed stipends for coaches to improve the system’s control over sports expenditures, but she doesn’t plan on recommending any coach or sports program cuts to the school board.

"For Gainesville city schools, this is a long-standing valued tradition to offer these kinds of opportunities," she said. "Of course, the board is the ones who approve them ultimately each year. But I do not see any wavering in our commitment to give our students these kinds of opportunities because this is what keeps them in school."



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