Your Kid’s Not Going Pro

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Posts Tagged ‘budget cuts

When cutting a high school gym means cementing a city's death

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You would think the Anderson (Ind.) school district, in a 40-year decline that is resulting in the shutdown of one high school and four other schools at the end of the 2009-2010, plus another 170 teachers cut from the schools that are left, might decide that now is the time to shut down its 9,000-seat basketball arena, which costs about $350,000 a year in utilities alone, or twice the cost of utilities for a whole elementary school. But shutting down the Wigwam, the acknowledged heart and soul of the Indiana high school basketball phenomenon known as Hoosier Hysteria, isn’t about money. It’s about a desperate town wanting to hold onto its last shred and symbol of pride and relevancy.

Again, the Wigwam survives, 13 years after the high school it originally was affiliated with closed, 11 years after a fire that burned down the old high school and would have burned down the gym had firefighters not made a heroic effort to save it, and 10 years after the idea of shutting it down was first broached in earnest after a school referendum failed. On May 11 the Wigwam dodged its latest bullet, when the Anderson school board voted 4-2 against a proposal to open the Wigwam up only to outside rentals, and have basketball games played at the 3,500-seat gym at the one high school that’s left — Anderson High School, sitting in what used to be Madison Heights High School (RIP), and next year to absorb the closed Highland High School.

There is an argument to keeping the Wigwam open beyond the long and storied history of Anderson Indians basketball. A few attached classrooms survived the fire, and they’re used for administrative purposes and special programs. But, really, the only argument for keeping the Wigwam open as Anderson, the city and school district, collapses around it is emotion.

Anderson’s population peaked at 70,000 in 1970, when the city had about 40,000 GM jobs. The population is sinking to 55,000, now that there are zero GM jobs. You could film a “Roger and Me” sequel in Anderson.

There are a few stirrings of economic activity, and Anderson did come back once from the decimation of the end of the Indiana Gas Boom in the 1910s. But riding through the city now is an exercise in watching slow death. The school district enrollment peaked in 1971 and has fallen even sense, with a continual 2-3 percent annual decline. To give you an idea of how bad things are for the Anderson schools, the new superintendent, Felix Chow, was hired in part because he had worked in this situation before — as superintendent of schools in Flint, Mich.

When a friend and I visited Anderson and its coach, Ron Hecklinski, in 2000 while doing a travel story for the Chicago Tribune on Indiana high school gyms (in Indiana, a 9,000-seat arena like the Wigwam or the No. 1 arena, New Castle’s Fieldhouse, is called a “gym”), Hecklinski was lamenting the decline in Anderson. “Every time I read the obituaries,” he said, “I say, there goes another season-ticket holder.” But the lure of Wigwam, the one that made him leave an assistant’s job at Ball State to coach high school ball, remained strong. Then, as now, he was sure that if the Wigwam shut down, he would have to leave Anderson. Anyplace else would be just a gym.

Even though everyone calls the Wigwam a gym, to Hecklinski — as to much of Indiana — the Wigwam is more special than that. “When people walk in here,” I remember Hecklinski saying, “they go, ‘Whoa.'” It’s not just the size of the Wigwam — it’s the intensity of the crowd, which remains even as its numbers dwindle. I suspect the continued use of Native American imagery — including a pregame chief and maiden dance — are held onto less out of mere tradition than as a reminder of the days when everyone in Anderson came to the games from their good-paying jobs.

That’s not something Anderson wants to give up on, even if the auto economy has long given up on Anderson. Richard Tompkins of Anderson wrote a letter to his local newspaper, the Herald-Bulletin, that sums up what the Wigwam means to so many in that city:

We lost our factories and that really devastated this city, but I can think of two great parts of Anderson tradition right now that has given us so much pleasure and is well known throughout the state: The Lemon Drop and the Wigwam.  These are two places we have enjoyed that have been around for generations and are part of the heritage and history of Anderson. This city has lost so much — the factories, far too many citizens, two great high schools, sectional and regional basketball; don’t continue to destroy what we have.

It’s sad, when you think about it, that someone feels all their once-thriving city has left is a famed diner and a gym. And when you feel that sadness, you realize why even when it seems financially wise to shut down that massive gym, it would be a psychic death blow to a city already pockmarked with large, rotting graveyards of what used to be jobs.

Would shutting down the Wigwam had saved some teachers’ jobs? Or a school? Maybe. But probably not. The declining enrollment, more than the Wigwam, has seen that those cuts would happen. But what about other entertainment options? Anderson is only about a 45-minute drive from Indianapolis — couldn’t people go see the Pacers or Colts, or Butler? Or won’t Anderson High basketball still be played in Anderson, but in another gym? Again, all true. But pointing the people of Anderson to entertainment elsewhere strips the city of its last piece of family-entertainment identity (there’s a horse track and casino, but you’re not going to bring your kids there). And no one is coming to Anderson from anyone else to see the team play in a smaller gym — but they’ll come to the Wigwam.

I’m not saying that keeping the Wigwam open while Anderson struggles is exactly the right decision. But I can understand why the people of Anderson want to hold onto it. At this point, it’s practically Anderson’s reason for being.

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Baltimore parks budget slashed. Hopefully the drug dealers will step up.

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In Tom Farrey’s excellent book on the state of youth sports, “Game On,” he devotes a chapter to the development of future NBA star Carmelo Anthony, and why drug dealers were so essential to it.

While Baltimore lavished all sorts of resources on Camden Yards, the Orioles’ stadium (and later, the Baltimore Ravens’ football stadium), it was gutting its parks and recreation department, closing many facilities and turning others over to the Police Athletic League, which ran them like little athletic gulags. Anthony found another parks department court, but he still needed financial help to advance his career, and that’s where the drug dealers came in. And why to this day Anthony is loathe to speak out against them.

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Carmelo Anthony, in red, in his world-famous “Stop Snitchin” cameo.

It appears that things haven’t gotten worse for the parks department in Baltimore since Anthony was growing up there in the 1990s. Hopefully the drug dealers are in good shape, because future Carmelo Anthonys are going to need them. From WBAL:

Fewer city pools and no more bulk trash pickup are just two items on Baltimore City’s budget chopping block.

On Monday [March 29], both the department of Parks and Recreation and Public Works gave their take on the doomsday proposals. The city’s $121 million budget deficit is leading to cuts in nearly all departments in the proposed 2011 budget.

“The reality is this is a devastating hit to recreation and parks,” Parks and Recreation Director Dwayne Thomas said. … They’re losing more than $8 million of city money in the proposed budget. The agency is looking at closing city-run pools and 29 recreation centers.

Judy Atkinson, with the Roosevelt Park Rec Center, said that could be devastating. “It’s gonna mean a lot more children out on the street that you’re gonna have people with idle time on their hands,” Atkinson said.

The cuts announced Monday in the Parks Division include cutting back on the maintenance at the parks including taking care of ball fields used for youth and adult sports leagues. “If we’re not able to maintain the fields at the level that we might want, maybe there aren’t as many activities going on,” Thomas said.

Youth sports needs its own economic stimulus package

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When President Obama put together his stimulus package earlier this year, any money that went to schools came with one caveat — that it not be used for anything that is primarily used for sports. Perhaps it’s time to rethink that position.

Up2Us, a coalition of school- and community-based youth sports, released a report on Oct. 21 that noted last year sports programs were cut collectively by $2 billion nationwide. It met in Washington during that time to discuss the implications of these cuts, and how to get Washington and other lawmakers to pay attention to what havoc they might wreak. “The ‘ripple effect’ of these budget cuts will extend far beyond the playing fields, and represents a loss for children and youth physically, emotionally, and academically,” said Paul Caccamo, executive director of Up2Us, in a written statement. “Sports participation isn’t just about improving your serve or throwing a touchdown pass, but about instilling lifelong, positive character traits like strength, commitment, and dedication.”

It would seem like losing sports seems like a small price to pay if academic programs are otherwise saved. And as far as the $2 billion in cuts, the organization doesn’t note its overall starting base, nor how the cuts compare to paring of academic programs. Certainly, Up2Us, given its membership, has a vested interest in spreading the word that things are dire. And, hey, if things are so bad, why are so many communities still making grand plans for youth sports complexes?

The problem is this: while there are plenty of parents still willing to fork out whatever is necessary to make sure Tad and Muffy get a place on the travel for that elusive college scholarship, there are also plenty of children whose access to youth sports is economically limited to school or community programs. If those get cut, more at-risk children are suddenly left with nothing but time on their hands. We’re going to go back to the 19th century, when participation in sports had more to do with your upper-crust standing than your athletic talent or desire.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune in March did a good series that looked at falling sports participation rates and looked at a lack of opportunity in many schools — both for intramural and varsity sports — as a big factor. Public schools under budget strains are being forced to consider either making major cuts in sports or levying pay-to-play fees on athletes, both of which have the effect of weeding out potential athletes who are stuck in a sports-less district or whose families can’t come up with the money for sports.

I’m a big believer in youth sports. Maybe not that they’re the sole way to prevent obesity and turn delinquents into contributing members of society, but I think they do have a purpose beyond concussion distribution. Still, I would be hard-pressed to tell a school district it should cut teachers in favor of new artificial turf, or that federal stimulus money should pay to gas up the basketball team’s bus for an out-of-state tournament.

Instead, I think there’s a strong case to be made for some sort of stimulus for community sports programs and intramurals. Yes, I coach in a community sports league, so maybe I have a bias. But if the goal is to save sports and get as many children involved as possible, it’s not varsity athletics that needs our attention. Why not, for example, give grants to communities so they can reduce the price of children’s athletic programs, or so they can expand their offerings? What about a tax break for eligible youth sports expenses? (By that I mean sign-up fees and equipment for publicly run programs, not writing off the thousands you spent on your daughter’s personal softball pitching coach.)

And why not make funding available to schools, from kindergarten upward, to finance and develop intramural programs? Hey, I have a bias there, too. My two oldest children transferred from a Catholic school with organized sports to a public elementary school that didn’t have them — but had intramurals. They love them. Everybody who shows up gets to play, and it’s more about the activity then investing your time and energy in some future pro dream. Plus, the only time parents are there is after it’s over, to pick up their kids. I only wish my oldest son’s junior high had intramurals, because if you get cut from a school team, you have no other athletic options. Plus, with intramurals, you don’t have to pay to gas up the team bus.

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Dan Hawkins, I’m right there with you, brother.

Written by rkcookjr

October 22, 2009 at 1:36 am

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.

Florida uses the nuclear option

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Maine couldn’t bring itself to cut high school sports at a statewide level. But Florida could — and did.

On Monday night, the Florida High School Athletic Association voted 9-6 to chop varsity sports games by 20 percent and JV and freshman games by 40 percent for the 2009-10 and 2010-11 school years. Varsity football, a big moneymaker, is unaffected. Competitive cheerleading is unaffected as well. Wait, is that a big moneymaker, too? New FHSAA executive director Roger Dearing in March put forth this proposal, saying the only other option was eliminating sports.

As you can imagine, this isn’t going over well with athletic directors.

From the Miami Herald, which notes that a lot of high-powered basketball programs who hosted or traveled to tournaments now can’t do so with a 20-game limit:

”I was a student in this county, and now I’ve been coaching in this county for 20-some years,” said Larry Brown, athletic director at Flanagan High School in Pembroke Pines. “I have never seen anything like this, cuts so drastic.”

Added Roger Harriott, AD at Davie’s University School: “It sends the wrong message to the kids, considering they’re the whole reason we have a job.”

In Miami, these games cuts were made five years ago. But the county school district says it still might have to eliminate multiple conference tournaments.

The problem in Florida is this: the state’s property taxes are refigured on an annual basis, and they’re based on the average sale prices for January, the busiest home-selling month in the state. (In my state, Illinois, your property gets reassessed every three years, based on an average price for the previous three years. So my schools are doing OK, because the last assessment caught the last three years of the real estate peak.)

The Florida system was great during the real estate boom times. Now, it’s sending school budgets cratering. Here was my report from January 2009, when I was visiting mortgage-scarred Bradenton.

Individual schools across the country are cutting sports budgets, but I haven’t heard of another state athletic association putting the hammer down on everyone. Will it be the last? I’m going to go out on a limb and say: probably not.

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A Florida High School Athletic Association board member at work.

EDIT: Boy, I am behind. New York and Mississippi already have enacted similar cuts statewide, with New York (unlike Mississippi) even cutting football. Oklahoma earlier this decade cut sports schedules to save money, though that was before the current recession. Idaho’s state high school athletic association in April voted down an across-the-board 10 percent event cut, but it might revisit the issue in May, as well as looking at other cost-saving moves.

Priorities, by Colorado Springs

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The city of Colorado Springs, Colo., is in a budget crunch, and one proposed way to get out of it is draconian cuts in its Department of Parks of Recreation — including eliminating all adult and youth sport programs. In this, the city has the enthusiastic assent of the local Gazette. Twice.

Meanwhile, the city is also struggling to come up with the $27.5 million loan it needs to cover its cost of the $53 million booty that got the U.S. Olympic Committee to keep its headquarters in Colorado Springs. The city says it’s just a matter of market timing, and it will get done. This was a deal that got the enthusiastic assent of the local Gazette.

So in Colorado Springs, the Olympic administrator will get its money, but the local future Olympians may well not. This is not a way to, as one prominent local organization might put it, focus on the family.

Written by rkcookjr

February 20, 2009 at 4:58 pm

No salary cap for Maine athletics

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Another belated update: a committee of the Maine Principals’ Association voted last week not to go through with a proposal to make across-the-board cuts in state high school sports, excepting reductions in the number of teams allowed in postseason play and a few other trims here and there. There had been talk of cutting games out of the regular season, restricting travel and other means to reduce the growing athletics cost burden. Instead, the local schools have to make their own cuts, thus showing the buck-passing skills principals are noted for.

However, on the flip side the New York Yankees of Maine school districts do maintain the right to buy a $35,000 commode on legs if they so wish.

And, no, “$35,000 commode on legs” is not a euphemism for a crappy football coach.

Written by rkcookjr

February 5, 2009 at 4:40 pm