2008-02-14 / Front Page

NK school committee eyes athletic budget cuts

By Adrienne Downing

Cuts to the North Kingstown schools athletic budget are nothing new. The athletic departments have sustained cuts of up to 4.7 percent in the last three years, but the proposed cuts unveiled at that town's School Committee budget hearing on Monday night left some people scratching their heads. The cuts would impact over 200 Jamestown students attending NKHS, half of whom are student athletes.

The line item, which was originally proposed as part of the fiscal year 2009 cuts and then shifted possible reductions for the following budget year, read, "Have one boy's and one girl's sport team for each season: fall, winter and spring, with the lowest cost per participant to be the only varsity sports offered. All other sports would be on a club basis funded by boosters, parents and participants."

The shift took place because a sub-committee determined that there was not enough time to look at the possible impact of the pro- posed cuts before a budget vote on Feb. 26. One committee member asked if they could try to get the numbers in time for consideration this year, and it was indicated that might be possible.

"I would not say at this point that anything has been taken off of the table for consideration," Doug Roth, chairman of the NK School Committee, said. "However, I do not support cuts like this."

The origin of the proposal, Roth said, is not known. "We submitted budget cut ideas anonymously, so that the politics would be taken out of the process and each proposed reduction could be discussed on its merits," he said. "But, the fact that someone would even bring this as a suggestion goes to the priorities and sensibilities of some of the members."

Roth said he hates to make any cuts, but when considering possible reductions, there are certain things to keep in mind. "I am in this for the kids. Everything else we look at is a piece of equipment, or a service, or a position, but this affects the kids directly."

Committee member Renee Cockerill agreed. "Athletics are something that keep the kids engaged in school," she said. "If someone thinks this is something that will really work, they will have to bring some evidence to show me. All evidence points to the opposite - that it goes towards their academic nature."

NK athletic director Keith Kenyon said the numbers speak for themselves. "Sixty to seventy percent of student athletes at this school are either on the honor roll or principal's honor roll. In my opinion, if we saw these kinds of cuts we would lose some of the best and the brightest students at this school to transfers to private schools," he said. "That is not to say that every bright student in this school is an athlete, but a lot of them are."

Amy Smith, an island resident and parent of an NK athlete, agrees. "We would definitely send our daughter to another school if they took away athletics. That is such a huge part of our lives," she said. "They learn to be leaders on the sports fields; it balances out their high school careers by allowing them stress release and teaching them time management skills."

Track coach Jen Chabot sees the difference athletics make in her athletes lives. "Sports keep kids focused, they build their confidence and self-esteem," she said. "With athletes who might be borderline academically, their drive to succeed is much higher. If they know they have to keep their grades at a certain level to play, they will."

Basketball coach Aaron Thomas said that in his 19 years of coaching he has only had two players fail off for academic reasons. "We are always stressing to kids the importance of school to kids and it gives them extra reason to succeed."

As for the idea of the parents or Booster club supporting the athletic program, that idea is not feasible said those involved.

"Pay to play" is not legal in Rhode Island and a change in statute would be required before that could even be considered.

Even if there were a change in the rule, Thomas said that brings in another set of problems. "I used to coach in Massachusetts where the athletes were required to pay a stipend to play. When parents are paying for their kids to play, they want equal playing time for their child. That is not feasible at the varsity level to be a competitive program. There is a reason this school is so high ranked and people want to send their kids here," he said.

Some families would not be able to afford the stipend, especially where multiple children from the same family are involved, which is one of the reasons the law exists.

The Booster Club is run entirely by volunteers and could not sustain funding for athletics beyond its current involvement. "To presume the Booster Club would pick up the funding is not fair to a group of volunteers," Kenyon said.

Not only not fair, but unrealistic, said club past president Vincent Siatti. "The Booster Club was not formed to make up a budget defi- cit. We sponsor awards nights for each season and purchase awards for the athletes, buy needed equipment that is not part of the athletic budget, provide scholarships and fund coaches education," he said. "All of our funding is based on fund-raising and we are not in a position to year after year provide funding to the athletic department. Asking a handful of volunteers to balance the athletic department's budget is not responsible or sustainable."

William "Bucky" Brennan, the Jamestown liaison to the NK School Committee, said it is not surprising that the committee would be looking at the sports budget. "Sports are an easy lowhanging fruit. You have a very vocal localized group pushing this agenda because they think sports are a luxury, but I think they need to look at the big picture. Special education kids play sports, art kids play sports, this affects everyone," he said.

Roth summed up the entire debate by encouraging community involvement.

"We need people to talk to us. The average parent needs to come to the school committee meetings and find out what is going on in their schools. I encourage Jamestown parents to come to our meetings and get involved," Roth said.

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