It should not come as a surprise that the budget for extracurricular activities -- most notably, athletics -- will take a hit next school year, as the Beaufort County Board of Education looks to trim $7 million in expenses to cover a projected shortfall.
What is surprising, though, is a seeming reluctance to adopt the "pay-to-play" model of charging athletic participation fees, a solution that has gained traction across the country during the Great Recession.
Longtime Beaufort High School athletics booster Scott Dennis proposed such a plan last December, when the district was merely considering a 5 percent cut in its athletics budget among many cost reductions on the table.
That 5 percent cut to coaching stipends, equipment budgets and travel costs became a reality last week -- cuts that will save the district about $110,000 -- and there's no indication the district is considering a pay-to-play model to help offset it.
But it's an idea that is at least worthy of discussion.
Two local athletics directors -- Battery Creek High School's John Drafts and Bluffton High School's Dave Adams -- told me Saturday they are not in favor of the idea of the pay-to-play model. Drafts said he is "totally against" the idea, and Adams called it the "next-to-last straw," with the last being a cut of athletic insurance, which was on the table in the initial proposal but fortunately (and wisely) was spared.
Both Drafts and Adams cited the power of athletics to help keep at-risk students in school as reasons they're against a pay-to-play model -- "We're the cheapest and best after-school program going," Adams said -- but if done right, that shouldn't be a factor.
One provision in Dennis' proposal was to waive the fee for families whose annual income qualifies them for free or reduced-price lunches, a threshold that falls at $40,793 for a family of four this year.
Some of the cuts athletics departments face can be absorbed simply by employing a bit of common sense. Eliminating overnight travel to preseason tournaments, for example, or playing more junior varsity contests against intra-county schools rather than traveling to the Charleston area would take care of most or all of the travel reductions.
Others, however, are going to leave a mark.
Skimping on equipment invites injuries, and reducing coaching stipends makes it more difficult to attract the best coaches, especially when those coaches are also excellent teachers.
That's where the pay-to-play model can help soften the blow.
A cursory Web search indicates at least a handful of South Carolina schools -- Irmo, Dutch Fork, South Pointe, Ridge View and Nation Ford among them -- have instituted athletic participation fees ranging from $25 to $100 per student per school year.
The Beaufort County Board of Education's initial proposal indicated 3,000 students among the county's five public schools would be affected by the cuts. That number seems too high, so let's say it's closer to 1,000. If half of those 1,000 qualify for the waiver, then asking for a $50 participation fee from the remaining half would offset more than 45 percent of the funding being trimmed from the budget.
It's hard to believe many high school sports parents would find $50 per year too much to pay to ensure their child has proper equipment and adequate coaching. Heck, one trip to the movie theater for a family of four covers that fee.
Without a doubt, the district will have to make many difficult decisions to make ends meet in 2011, and possibly beyond.
This is one decision whose time has come.