News Column

Erie district could revisit cutting sports

August 31, 2014

By John Dudley, Erie Times-News, Pa.



Aug. 31--When educational funding grew scarce and the Erie School District began looking for ways to avoid cutting jobs a few years ago, the idea of eliminating sports at Central Tech emerged.

Estimates at the time put the savings at anywhere from $247,000 to $300,000 a year.

The proposal, raised in 2011, did not go over well.

Angry students and parents jammed Erie School Board meetings to urge the teams be spared, and the board relented.

"We learned a hard lesson," Erie schools Superintendent Jay Badams said. "At that time we couldn't say we would have invested (the savings) back into (other sports) programs. That represented several teachers salaries."

But that likely isn't the end of the idea.

It's all but inevitable the 12,000-student district will again have to look at eliminating or consolidating programs, said district Athletic Director John Dahlstrand, whose budget has been cut to $1.6 million from $1.8 million since 2010 in the face of rising costs.

"We will have to stand before people and discuss what we're going to have to do, and everyone's not going to be happy," Dahlstrand said. "You just have to make tough decisions. That's what they pay us to do."

Dahlstrand said he and Badams have discussed options but declined to get into details, saying that some improvements called for in the district's long-term optimization plan "muddy the waters" in terms of how it might proceed with cuts. The massive restructuring plan is meant to help the district cut costs and reduce thousands of unfilled classroom seats by closing or consolidating schools.

One hypothetical solution -- combining individual programs from several schools into one districtwide team -- isn't an option, Dahlstrand said, because Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association rules permit so-called co-op arrangements only when certain criteria are met. He said Erie's schools don't currently meet them.

"For example, we could combine our wrestling into one school," Dahlstrand said. "But we can't do it because the PIAA's current rules say we would become a powerhouse.

"I think (the PIAA is) just going to have to look at things down the road, especially with urban schools, and make an exception. We wouldn't become a powerhouse. We would just be competitive."

Dahlstrand said his research shows that through co-ops the district could combine "four or five" programs -- he declined to specify which ones -- and save money while strengthening them from a competitive standpoint.

Another option is revisiting the idea of eliminating one school's sports teams altogether. In 2011, Central Tech was chosen, Badams said, because the district reasoned that students were required to apply to get in, as those who wish to attend Northwest Collegiate Academy must do, and could likewise choose to compete at either East or Strong Vincent.

But with a handful of highly competitive programs -- including boys basketball, boys soccer and track and field -- and a rich history in others, including football, the proposal was met with staunch opposition.

"When we talked about cutting Central sports a few years ago, (Badams) could not run one other thing for three whole board meetings," Dahlstrand said. "Is it important? Obviously we think it is. But something has to give."

Neither Badams nor Dahlstrand is ready to say whether the district would again look at athletics at Central Tech or another school as a candidate for elimination or when it would happen.

Instead, they're hoping cost savings realized through the proposed optimization plan would help preserve what now exists and enhance programs at the middle-school levels.

But unless, and until, that happens, Badams said the district will keep all its options -- including program cuts -- on the table.

"It's sad when we have to make draconian decisions that essentially pit academics against athletics, or the arts or music," Badams said. "But those are the sorts of bad decisions that we've been forced to contend with over the past few years.

"And I don't see them getting necessarily better until some larger issues like the pension situation and school funding in general get tackled by the Legislature."

JOHN DUDLEY can be reached at 870-1677 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ETNDudley.

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(c)2014 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)

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Source: Erie Times-News (PA)


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