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When youth sports die, they can take a school and city down with them

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I think we can all agree that organized youth sports are not 100 percent essential to the school or growing-up experience, in that plenty of people grew up to be productive, non-prison-occupying citizens without them. However, a major change in how a school or locality treats youth sports can be a symbol of that school or locality’s falling into the abyss.

Much has been written about the impact of the South-Western City School Board in Columbus, Ohio, dropping all extracurricular activities after voters failed to pass a tax levy, and how that has further drained the energy of the district. In May I went to Elkhart, Ind., to write about youth sports in America’s poster child for sudden employment, and I found the dividing line between whether someone thought themselves as out-of-work middle class or poor depended a lot on whether they could still scrape together a few nickels for youth sports. After all, if they didn’t have the money to spend anymore on something they believed benefited their children, they didn’t have money for the basics, either.

But today’s city and school on the edge of the economic abyss is Elk Grove, Calif., where the school system is looking at cutting out all freshman and junior varsity sports, and even some varsity programs, across nine high schools, thus filling about $1 million of a projected $42 million budget hole, and resulting in one-third of the athletic budget gone. The next meeting to discuss sports is scheduled for Oct. 19, with a decision expected in November. Unlike in some other districts that have cut sports but brought them back, Elk Grove doesn’t seem keen on having local boosters raise money to “buy back” teams on the chopping block.

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Elk Grove, a former dairy town, in 2006 was declared by the U.S. Census the fastest growing city in America, peaking at 136,000 residents. Average values that year were riding their highest, $458,000.

Now they’re at $227,000 — about a 50 percent drop in three years. Elk Grove was the first new megasuburb to realize its fast growth was a mirage, built on loans its residents couldn’t afford, particularly once they started losing their jobs. Instead of a suburban paradise, Elk Grove is watching presumed inner-city crime problems move in as squatters and renters take over what were once pristine McMansions.

While that is certainly more than enough to shake Elk Grove’s images among its own citizens, the final nail in their soon-to-be-repossessed coffin is the slicing of sports. Like in Elkhart, it’s the difference between down on your luck and down for the count. In Elk Grove, the varsity sports most likely to be cut are the likes of water polo, recently added sports that spoke to the town’s growth and affluence, and whose demise speaks to Elk Grove’s decline.

Not to say that the community is taking this change of status lightly. John Tuttle, the volunteer water polo coach at Elk Grove’s Franklin High, told the Elk Grove Citizen the only towel that should be thrown in is one that a player of his used.

“Putting sport aside, I find this unacceptable and disturbing,” he said. “Teaching our kids about responsibility, accountability, and the fact that you have to work for what you want should be a high priority – and we are staring right at a real life situation that could easily accomplish this. Tossing it aside as too difficult and potentially inequitable suits leaders we can’t afford to be in charge in these tough economic times. “

Unfortunately for Tuttle and others like him, tossing things aside is the rule when your city suddenly becomes a basket case. Maybe some of the citizens of Elk Grove will respond by starting private programs to make up for the athletic loss. But with no sign of an economic turnaround, Elk Grove is going to be hard-pressed to keep any symbol of its former glory — especially sports.

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