CINCINNATI (AP) - For an increasing number of Ohio families, students playing sports also means parents paying for sports.
Participation fees, which can run into hundreds of dollars for each child, have become a fact of life for many Ohio schools battling budget problems after years of a rough economy and state funding cuts. Nearly half the state's high schools charge some form of fee for sports, according to a recent statewide survey, and samplings also show a trend among those who had instituted fees earlier to raise them and eliminate multi-sport and multi-child discounts.
"The fees are the focus of a lot of conversations," said Terry Pearson, who is paying a total $1,100 this fall for two boys to play football at Lakota West High School in suburban Cincinnati. "We talk about it at our table. It makes it a lot tougher."
The Little Miami High School football team practices kickoffs, in Morrow, Ohio. All students in the school system participating in team sports must pay a participation fee that can amount to hundreds of dollars.
He's among parents, coaches, and school officials who worry about long-term impacts looming for high school sports, which advocates say help young people develop teamwork, leadership, responsibility and other life skills, besides providing physical exercise in an era of childhood obesity.
Already, the fees, which vary widely, are contributing to declining participation in Ohio school sports. The Ohio High School Athletic Association reports that nearly 12,000 fewer players (some 180,000 total) played in the 2010-11 school year than in the previous year. That's counter to national figures that show high school sports participation continues to grow. Some Ohio schools also charge junior high fees, usually lower.
Scott Smith, a longtime prep athletics official who chairs Central Michigan University's department of physical education and sport, has been tracking fees for years. The Greenville, Ohio, native said he continually sees new communities across the country adopting them. The fees began decades ago in states such as Massachusetts and California, he said, but have become common in states such as Ohio and Michigan in the past decade. More than half of Michigan's schools charge sports fees, which have doubled in use over nine years.
Ohio's use has also jumped, during state education cuts, lower tax bases, and reluctance by budget-pressed households to approve new levies.
"This is just one part of the whole education funding crisis going on in Ohio right now," said Tim Stried, spokesman for the Ohio sports association. "It was just assumed that everyone knew how important high school sports were."
School leaders say they are important, but there are other priorities when districts around the state have also made teacher and staff layoffs, frozen salaries, reduced course offerings, and closed buildings.
At Little Miami Schools, which the state declared in fiscal emergency amid eight straight levy rejections, officials considered eliminating sports but decided to try to keep them alive by funding with $651 participation fees, per sport.
"Sports was on the chopping block," said Melinda Briggs, Little Miami spokeswoman. "There's where the pay to participate comes from. We've done a lot of soul-searching."
A former prep athlete and mother of one, Briggs said sports have education benefits, of "learning life lessons." But the steep fees took a toll on the southwest Ohio district's sports: Overall participation fell 40 percent, scores of athletes transferred to other schools, and only five boys ran on the track team last spring. The district cut fees to $350 for this year after passing a levy.
"If pay to participate continues to increase, you're going to see the demise of high school sports as we know it," said Rodger Elander, head football coach of Westerville North in suburban Columbus and a coach-educator for 27 years. His school charges $240 fees.
Elander and others worry that top teen athletes will forego high school sports to focus on club, or "select," teams.
"Club sports lack an educational component," Bob Gardner, executive director of the Indianapolis-based National Federation of State High School Associations, wrote in a column. "These programs exist solely for the purpose of improving one's athletic skills."
Most high school athletes are on teams to have fun and be with friends, to have a positive activity with coaches and teammates who support them, he wrote. School sports also can help keep at-risk students engaged in school, and keep them out of after-hours trouble, advocates say.
Smith doesn't see the trends halting anytime soon because few schools expect better budgets.
"That's sad. To me, high school sports is that last bastion that still says this is amateur sports, with educational value, for everyone," Smith said.
Elander said besides the X's and O's of drawing up football plays, coaches now have to worry about dollar signs: "I don't think any of us got into this to become a fundraiser."
School booster clubs and alumni have helped some schools. Saginaw (Mich.) Public Schools, whose sports participation fell after $75 fees were imposed, got $60,000 this year to cover fees for everyone from alumnus LaMarr Woodley, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.
Around Ohio, student-athletes have been out this summer selling mulch, entertainment coupon books, candy bars and raffle tickets; one Little Miami athlete sold bottled water along a bicycle trail to pay his fee.
Many school districts offer reductions or waivers for hardship cases, and Lakota is among those who offer installment plans. It raised fees last year from $300 to $550.
"It took me a long time to pay that off," said Renita Cartwright, whose son plays Lakota West football. He's 15, so getting him to and from school, practices and games is another challenge because Lakota also cut high school busing.