I got a question Thursday from a Juniata County School District coach: Was I aware of any school district that has canceled sports outright, even for a season?
A quick poll of the press box at Altoona's Mansion Park produced a resounding "no." We all knew of schools that consolidated, eliminating all sports in the process, and most of us knew of one or two schools that had ended some sports - usually a smaller school that just didn't have the students to field a team. But the possibility of an entire Pennsylvania school district canceling sports altogether? That was a first.
A call came later in the day from a Juniata parent. What, he asked, would become of the kids who were in the running for college scholarships? What about those who are motivated to stay in school and keep their grades up because of sports - or any extracurricular activity, for that matter?
The quagmire potentially created by the school board's vote that night to cut athletics as a result of a failed vote in favor of a tax referendum two days earlier - making good on its promise or threat, depending on how you look at it - could be a sign of the future for public education statewide. Or it could be the first step toward the demise of public education in Juniata County.
The school board's history of pandering to those who would have no tax increase at any time, for any reason, has come back to bite it - since the state's passage of a cap on tax increases, every dollar not levied has had an impact that reaches far down the road.
Before you get the wrong idea, I'm not suggesting that the school board should raise taxes just because it can, nor blaming voters for turning down a proposal that would have given the board carte blanche to reach into taxpayers' pockets just so there will be football in the fall.
But the board deserves blame for the times it was thinking only in the present, when the writing was already on the wall about the future cost of education - salaries and benefits, transportation, buildings and maintenance, books and computers - that were escalating statewide.
And that's the kicker - this may not be just Juniata County's problem. Districts are expecting that, within two years, the cost of teachers' pensions will represent as much as 20 percent of budgeted salaries, rather than the 5 percent we see today. That, too, will have to be paid for somehow, and in the process will even further reduce the cutting room available in a school budget.
What of the kids who are done playing, if the school board fails to find an alternative before the June 30 budget deadline?
Don't be surprised if nearby schools in Mifflin, Snyder and Perry counties suddenly see a few new faces - and despite transfer rules, I suspect most athletes who change venue will get to play. Those in individual sports - wrestling, tennis and track - can enter unattached as long as the school district agrees to it (presumably with those kids' parents paying the tab in full).
But every kid who leaves costs the district money and worsens the budget impact, as the loss is felt in state funding.
As brought up by at least one parent at Thursday's board meeting, this will have a negative impact on the ability of JCSD kids to get into college, lessening the value of the district's education even further. And as noted, lack of motivation may mean lack of education - a future cost taxpayers may have to bear.
It's the responsibility of the board and administration to make every effort to serve their constituents, which are not the voters or the parents, but are the students placed in their charge every day. There are alternatives, as one taxpayer told the board - while, somewhat selfishly, refusing to document them in detail.
But for sports, we know what they are. It's time to stop supporting two programs. It's time to make athletes and their families share the cost. Even an assessment of each sports program must be made, despite the fact that Juniata County is at a minimum in that department for schools of comparable size.
The school district in Palmerton recently decided to cut a few sports - golf, cross country, wrestling and swimming - and within days the supporters of those teams raised the money to keep them going.
We constantly hear how it's all about the kids. Now is the time to prove it.
Jeff Fishbein is sports editor of The Sentinel. Contact him at email@example.com.