It's a question I've been asked more than any other of late, and though most people want only an opinion, my answer remains: I don't know.
The question is, will there be athletics in Juniata County next fall?
I believe the school board is using popular programs to try and leverage a positive vote on the school district's tax referendum. I'd like to believe the district will not end all athletics. And, I admit, I think some of the problems the board faces are of its own making.
But those problems are not uncommon anymore - at its recent open house meeting to discuss the future of school spending, some Midd-West parents asked why athletics were not on the chopping block along with other extracurricular activities. All of Mifflin County's 2011-12 athletic plans include the caveat that the program exists only if funding is available when the final budget is passed.
In Perry County, a school district was threatened last summer with the end of sports over budgetary issues. And in Harrisburg, coaches who are well into the current season are still waiting for the board to appropriate funds to pay them.
Is athletics just a convenient whipping boy? No - there are but so many ways a district can cut a budget, and non-academic activities provide an easy place to line up the ax. Will elimination of sports solve the budget problems? Hardly - when shortfalls are listed in the millions, elimination of programs that cost even a few hundred thousand are only a small part of any fix, short or long term.
Think the solution for your kid to keep playing is to head to another school district? Not so fast, says the PIAA.
Transfers motivated by athletics are illegal under PIAA rules. If you move to a neighboring school district primarily to allow your son or daughter to play sports, the move could be deemed an illegal transfer and your child would lose eligibility to play.
Do the math
One of my favorite questions to ask those who question the price of scholastic sports is to identify the cost of those programs as a percentage of a school district's annual budget. More often than not, the answer I get back ranges from 5 percent to 15 percent. Some guess as high as 25 or 50 percent.
Try again - on average, the cost of athletics represents about 1 to 1-1/2 percent of a school district's annual budget.
In Juniata County, the proposed 2010-11 school budget (from the district website) includes $32.8 million in spending. Of that, $634,000 is set aside as a line item for activities - or about 2 percent of the budget. That figure presumably includes non-athletic activities, so even if the county's sports toll is at the top of the range, it still represents a small slice of the pie.
How many students benefit from these programs? Juniata County's PIAA population for the current two-year cycle is 823 (301 at East Juniata, 522 at Juniata). That three-grade measurement extrapolates to roughly 930 high school (9-12) students total.
Based on input from athletic directors for The Sentinel's "Running the Numbers" series (published in December), participation in sports varies in the region from a little more than 30 percent to as much as 50 percent. Even if you take a number near the low end - say, 35 percent participation - there are about 325 students who play at least one sport in Juniata County.
For those 325 athletes to be using more than their share of the 2 percent of the budget they consume, there would have to be more than 16,000 students enrolled in the county - when in fact, there are fewer than 3,100, so the number of kids benefiting from that expenditure far outweighs the dent it makes on the overall budget.
These totals overlook junior high sports cost (which is part of the budgeted amount), and any revenue received from athletics, although sports programs rarely if ever pay for themselves in the financial sense - in fact, even so-called revenue sports like football and basketball fail to bring in at the gate the amount of money spent to put the team on the field.
A ripe target
The problem is, athletics is something you can cut - and there are plenty of things you can't.
Salaries and benefits, which make up the lion's share of a school district budget (as much as two-thirds, or more), are set by contract. Programs mandated by state and federal governments are off limits, as are debt service and other long-term issues.
Buildings can be closed and consolidated, which results in savings. Districts can put off replacement of textbooks and other school supplies. One school district in York County is mulling an end to bus transportation next year - a move that could save millions.
And they can eliminate extracurricular programs, which by their nature, are not part of the academic mandate of public education.
The problem with that is, there are benefits - both seen and unseen - to those programs. School plays and musicals, for example, keep students interested in the arts, and studies have shown that students with such varied backgrounds will benefit not only academically, but in other aspects of life as well.
Sports supports a national goal of better fitness, and also introduces concepts positive to one's future, most notably teamwork. And, while it's a minute possibility at best, athletic scholarships aid some student athletes in their quest for higher education.
No easy solution
Cost-cutting is possible, by limiting the number of programs and paid coaches, or cutting coaches' salaries.
Eliminating coaches or paying them less may or may not be realistic. Coaches are not getting rich on what they do now (although it's fair to note that teachers' earnings as coaches count toward their total earnings for retirement purposes, which also imposes a cost to taxpayers).
There is no set scale for coaching, and I'm betting Juniata County is not at the top end. Those spring coaches at Harrisburg mentioned at the beginning of this column are looking at $2,000 for the season; their counterparts at nearby Central Dauphin are earning more than $5,000.
Bottom line: A 25 percent reduction from a $2,000 salary is not going to save the program, nor is spending that money for a quality coach going to break the bank.
Mifflin County in 2010-11 limited the distance its indoor track and field teams could travel, cutting transit costs for athletics. But most regular-season games are in close proximity to the schools, and it would be a slap in the face to tell the kids they couldn't go to a state playoff game because it was too far away.
Juniata County has one option that hasn't been explored loudly, but has been discussed quietly for some time now - merging the athletic programs of the high schools, whether or not the schools themselves merge. It wouldn't solve all the financial problems - in fact, it would probably only cut about 30 percent from the sports budget - but it would be a start.
But, it would be considered a cooperative agreement by the PIAA and fall under rules for that type of program; also, it would make Juniata a Class AAA school in virtually every sport.
Athletic activity fees
That leaves athletic activity fees, often called "pay to play" by detractors. But you're not paying to play: Paying the fee guarantees nothing more than being part of the team. And we have plenty of youth sports that require fees already - ask any parent whose kid is in midget football, ASA softball, Little League or Babe Ruth baseball, AYSO soccer, AAU basketball, etc.
Athletic fees range from as little as $25 a year to as much as $75 per sport, at Pennsylvania schools that already charge such fees. At least one nearby school actually undermines its own fee program - Selinsgrove charges one, then allows those who have paid it free entry to all regular-season games with an admission fee. The result often is a net loss for the school.
And to be fair, even the seemingly outrageous $500 fee that has been the subject of rumor and innuendo in Juniata County wouldn't pay the bill - the cost for one athlete is easily more than double that, using the budget figures above. Of course, that assumes the same cost for all sports, which is unrealistic - football and tennis do not cost the same.
Ultimately, it's up to the school board to decide, with or without the funding boost of a referendum approving higher taxes. And it's a decision school districts across the state are soon going to be making, whether they like it or not.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.