High voltage electricity was once supplied to trains through the “third rail”. Over time, the phrase “third rail” became a metaphor denoting a political subject so highly charged that politicians who dared to discuss the subject – metaphorically touch the rail – would suffer greatly.
In school politics, athletics is a third rail, and some local school boards recently tested voltage. Sparks flew... and the boards backed down.
I wrote this piece a few weeks ago:
Detroit News: Bloated costs hurting schools (06/03/10)
As predicted, the school board is going to pull hundreds of thousands of dollars out of savings to subsidize sports.
They will spend about $900 per pupil for the 1800 students that play sports, and it comes at the expense of the 13,000 kids who don't play.
Meanwhile, they are slashing $1,000,000 out of the already underfunded building maintenance budget.
Keep all of this in mind when this board approaches voters in a few years to ask for a sinking fund millage. We'll have leaky roofs, and cracked parking lots, and they'll tell you that there is just no money to fix things. Remember their actions here when they trot out the "we have no choice" excuse.
P.S. I've pasted below the article in case the link doesn't work.
June 3, 2010 http://detnews.com/article/20100603/OPINION01/6030345
Bloated costs hurting schools
For years, irresponsible school board spending set the stage for a financial meltdown. The economic crisis in Michigan accelerated the process, compelling boards to consider tough budget choices.
These choices have brought out competing special interest groups, claws extended, defending their turf, trying to push the cuts onto someone else.
Employee unions are the 800-pound gorilla in these fights, but the "athletic parent" is proving to be one tough mama grizzly as well. They view after-school sports as an entitlement, and attack anyone who threatens it.
This entitlement is being tested in cash-strapped districts, and fur is flying from Rochester to Romeo to Farmington.
In Rochester, student athletes are assessed a $180 pay-to-play fee, which comes nowhere close to covering athletic spending.
Even after these fees, Rochester athletic spending exceeds $1.6 million dollars. That's nearly $890 for each of the 1,800 student athletes. Add together the school expenditures and student fees, and the average cost for after-school sports is $1,070 per participant.
Compare school spending to several private intramural football and basketball teams in Rochester. Some are recreational, while others are more competitive. They range in cost from $140 to $250 per child per season; up to 85 percent less than the school.
Beyond the annual costs, the district recently installed three artificial turf football fields at $1 million dollars each, as well as two middle school auxiliary gymnasiums "needed" to supplement the main gyms.
Ignoring costs, there's no doubt that sports are constructive for some students. Sports can teach leadership and teamwork, and help a child learn to humbly accept victory or graciously concede defeat. For some, athletics are the only motivation to do well in school.
But the fact remains that after-school sports aren't part of a school's core curriculum, and the costs come at the expense of the thousands of students who do not play.
The $1.6 million dollar athletic expenditure in Rochester is now being examined as the district faces a $14 million dollar deficit. One proposal considers increasing the pay-to-play fee to $450, and athletic boosters are marching on the board with torches and pitchforks.
Yet none of them comment on the layoff notices to 30 teachers and dozens of secretaries, or the reductions in library and special education support staffs.
Deficit reduction proposals consider maximizing the "contractual staffing formula." This is jargon for increasing class sizes to the absolute contractual limits. There hasn't been a peep out of parents.
The board proposes to reduce an already underfunded building maintenance budget, causing speculation they'll soon be begging taxpayers to pass a sinking fund millage. Parents have been silent on this issue.
But the board has received hundreds of letters from athletic parents "outraged" at the increased pay-to-play proposal.
Parents should be upset, but not at the fee. They should be upset that the school board let the cost of sports become so outrageously expensive. And they should be upset that the board continues to squeeze academic and athletic programs to feed unreasonable union demands.
In the end, politicians on the Rochester board -- lacking conviction -- will likely cave to the pressure, pulling more money from the district's rapidly dwindling savings account to subsidize after-school sports.
Rochester is the example, but extrapolating these numbers statewide suggest athletic spending might exceed $185 million annually. And sports may be the face of the debate, but other extra-curricular activities such as drama and choir are also at risk.
Sadly, no solution is in sight.
Rather than deal with economic reality, schools contend this is a "Lansing problem," issuing calls for "stable funding" (more education jargon for a tax increase).
A taxpayer bailout of irresponsible school board spenders is not the solution.
Schools must acquire the fiscal discipline necessary to get spending in line with reasonable benchmarks set by the private sector, not just in sports, but in all areas of their operation.
And boards must develop the communication skills necessary to help us understand why this is the time for shared sacrifice from employee unions, athletic parents, and other special interest groups.