James Harrod was taken aback when he learned York High was instituting a $100 activity fee for each of its sports seasons.
“It was not like I was going to say, ‘No, my kids can’t participate,’ but I was somewhat annoyed by how it just sort of happened,” said Harrod, whose daughter, Julia, is a three-sport athlete. “Why am I paying extra money to have my children participate in activities, when at the end of the day a strong school system benefits the whole community?”
Activity fees, common in other states, are slowly taking root in Maine. They are often proposed as a way to keep sports programs operating without raising property taxes. But the fees are creating tension in some communities, with some parents and administrators arguing that the fees discourage participation from less fortunate families and that their taxes should cover all parts of their children’s education, including athletics.
Eleven of the 29 public high schools in southern Maine’s two major sports conferences charge fees for every sport, according to an analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram. Fees range from $10 per sport in Old Orchard Beach to $175 for most sports in Falmouth. In many cases, fees also apply at the middle school level.
Twelve other high schools charge fees – or rely on contributions from booster clubs – to offset costs of specific sports such as ice hockey, swimming and skiing that require facility rentals. Only six of the 29 schools have no fees for student athletes. Two schools tried sports activity fees briefly and abandoned them.
York became the latest school in Maine to implement the fees for the 2014-15 academic year. The fees there are $100 for each high school sport and $75 for each middle school sport, with a $300 family cap per year. And while most schools provide hardship waivers for families that can’t afford the fees, they require students to ask for a break.
“No child is going to want to admit that,” said Ellen Datsis, mother of field hockey captain Devon Datsis. “There’s a social stigma attached.”
In York, the fees were instituted as a way to avoid a reduction in teaching staff or an increase in the property tax rate. Among parents, the initial resentment, surprise and disappointment has been displaced by a quiet resignation that activity fees are now a part of York High athletics.
“I just happen to feel athletics and extracurriculars are part of the school curriculum,” said Jodie Lawlor, a booster club member and girls’ lacrosse coach whose daughter, Allie, plays field hockey, basketball and lacrosse. “But if losing teachers is the other option, then I’d rather pay a fee.”
‘EVERY SCHOOL HAS SOME’ SORT OF FEE
Only six public high schools in the Western Maine Conference and Southern Maine Activities Association – Deering, Portland, Sanford, South Portland, Westbrook and Yarmouth – fully fund all high school sports. Two schools – Marshwood and Sacopee Valley – had activity fees but dropped them after discovering the administrative costs of collecting fees and keeping records resulted in little net revenue.
Most schools with activity fees began instituting them around 2008, when school budgets were stretched by reduced state funding and taxpayers were hit by the recession. Activity fees, in virtually all cases, are deposited into a school’s general fund and are not specifically earmarked for sports. Booster fees go directly to the athletic department or to defray the costs of a particular sport.
The Maine Principals’ Association, which governs high school athletics, does not have comprehensive data on activity fees and has not surveyed its members on the topic.
Nor are any reliable nationwide data available. The National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association has outdated information. The NIAAA surveyed its members in 2005 and found 35 percent of schools charged an activity fee.
“I would contend that every school has some form of pay-to-play, whether it’s an activity fee or having to pay for shoes and protective gear,” said Mike Blackburn, the NIAAA’s associate executive director.
Maine falls below the national norm in terms of both frequency and cost of participation fees, according to a 2014 children’s health poll conducted by the University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. It found that 62 percent of school sports participants paid an average fee of $126, with 18 percent paying $200 or more. In 2012, the same poll found 61 percent of participants paid an average fee of $93.
While the 2005 NIAAA survey found that fees did not affect participation, the Mott Children’s Hospital polls found evidence that fees do discourage participation and are likely creating a further widening of an already existing economic gap.
According to that poll, only 30 percent of families earning less than $60,000 per year had a child playing a school sport, compared to 51 percent among families earning more than $60,000. Of the parents who reported that their children did not participate in a school sport, one in seven cited cost as the reason.
THE EFFECTS ON PARTICIPATION
Portland High athletic director Rob O’Leary said he’s certain activity fees reduce athletic participation – and that it gets worse as the price rises.
O’Leary came to Portland before the 2014-15 school year after working as an athletic director at two suburban Boston public high schools, Winthrop and Saugus. At Saugus, he said, every sport carried a fee of $500 to $700.
“I was at two schools that charged athletes to play, and it definitely took away from the three-sport athlete,” O’Leary said. “It’s a tough decision to spend that type of money on a sport where you’re just going out for the social aspect or you know you’re going to be playing on the JV team.”
O’Leary said he doubts Portland will ever have athletic fees.
“Our central office and teachers and administrators just understand how important sports are for school kids,” he said. “With the diversity we have here and the amount of students who participate, the dollar amount we spend on athletics isn’t that great to put kids out who can’t afford it.”
Other administrators are leery of the fees.
Windham High School does not have them, but athletic director Rich Drummond prepared a pros-and-cons presentation for his school board in 2013. He stressed that even without fees, parents and students are already paying significant sums to participate.
“There are so many what I call hidden costs – new sneakers or cleats, meal money, travel suits, the cost of summer camps,” Drummond said.
However, the athletic directors at schools with fees said they have seen no evidence of decreased participation.
“The numbers don’t show that our participation has changed,” said Traip Academy athletic director Mike Roberge, “though I’m not so naive to think it has never kept a student from participating.”
Falmouth charges the highest fees among local schools – $175 for most sports; track and cross country are $100. Falmouth was faced with eliminating some sports programs when activity fees were added in 2009.
Participation, however, is as strong as ever, said athletic director Cooper Higgins.
“In our community it raises so much money it would be difficult to do away with it,” Higgins said. “That’s $150,000 just from athletes. Once it’s in (place), it’s hard to take it back.”
Falmouth parents aren’t happy about the fees, but they’re not rebelling.
“I’m not wealthy. It’s not like money grows on trees for me,” said Mark Lozoraitis, whose daughter, Emily, played field hockey at Falmouth High this fall. “But I guess if she wants to play, then I come up with the money and she plays.”
‘A SEMI-INVOLUNTARY TAX’
In York, James Harrod said he feels strongly that the cost of school sports should be borne by taxpayers. But he will also continue to dip into his wallet to subsidize his child’s passion for athletics.
If his son Brady, an eighth-grader, continues on his three-sport path through his senior year, the Harrods will pay $1,800 in activity fees over six years.
“It sort of strikes me as a semi-involuntary tax,” said Harrod, who is an operations director for a consulting firm.
Despite the fees, participation in athletics has remained high in York. About 270 of 625 high school students are playing interscholastic sports this fall.
Like most other schools, York has safeguards to ensure that students don’t get left out just because their families can’t afford the fee. But some kids will still quietly sit on the sidelines. And what about the fledgling athlete at the middle school level, where the fee structure begins? Will a kid who decides not to try a new sport because it costs money even be noticed?
“That’s the thing,” said Darryl Kelly, whose son, Darryk, is a seventh-grade soccer player who intends to play basketball and baseball. “A kid or parent could make up an excuse because it might be something in private and they don’t want to put themselves out there. … In middle school I could see where (an activity fee) might prevent a student from playing a sport. That could be a disincentive.”
Staff Writer Glenn Jordan contributed to this story.