Pay-to-play policies differ between area high schools

  • Victoria Marcotte and Bruce Bova (right) watch the Pittsfield vs. Newmarket soccer game on Thursday, September 7, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Victoria Marcotte and Bruce Bova (right) watch the Pittsfield boys’ soccer team play Newmarket on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Autumn Carson (middle) talks to fellow Pittsfield soccer mom Kyle Maura (right) during a game at Drake Field on Aug. 31. Nick Stoico / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/8/2018 8:24:47 PM

With high school athletes back to their daily routines balancing classwork with practices and games, many parents are asked to pay an annual athletic fee back to their school district on top of the money they spend on equipment for their child’s sport.

The policy, known loosely as “pay-to-play,” is one that most athletic directors in the area try to avoid, leaning in favor of inviting students to participate in athletics without the burden of handing over cash.

But charging a fee alleviates some of the cost of running a sport that’s handed down to taxpayers, a discussion that’s taken place in some area school districts’ annual March meetings.

The Monitor reached out 17 high schools in the capital area, and of those, four athletic departments require families to pay a fee for their child to play a sport this fall. Deciding to charge a fee isn’t always easy, and in some cases, officials fear it will prohibit participation.

Concord’s fees are the highest with a $90 cost for a student to participate on a high school team.

Down the road at Bow High, students are charged a $50 fee to join an athletic team with a $100 cap for the year, making that spring season a freebie for three-sport athletes.

Hopkinton requires $60 per player and sets a seasonal cap at $120 for families with multiple children going out for teams. The fees were increased from $25 with a $50 cap in 2007. Athletic Director Dan Meserve said the revenue helps offset the cost of its middle school sports programs.

In Pittsfield, families pay $50 for each child they have participating in a sport and there is no cap, meaning one three-sport athlete will pay $150 for the year. If a family has two three-sport athletes, that figure doubles, and so on.

The New Hampshire Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body of high school sports in the state, conducted a statewide survey in 2012 that found 37 percent of schools charge a fee to play, a number that had grown over time as more schools struggled to pay for all the things in their budgets.

Parents in the Pittsfield athletic community aren’t fretting over the fee, even after learning that most schools in the area do not require one.

“In this community, I wonder how taxing it is on families,” said Victoria Marcotte, who has two boys on the Pittsfield high school soccer team and another young athlete in middle school, where the fee is $25. “But if it is a choice between sports or no sports, I’ll pay the fee.”

Exceptions allowed

Pittsfield is unique among the four Concord area schools because it spends more money per pupil ($20,338.70) than the other three schools that require a fee, and has the lowest median family income in the group at $60,515, according to census data. This year’s district budget earmarked $120,692.05 for athletics and co-curricular activities, down about 9 percent from 2017-18.

School districts in Bow and Pittsfield have the same sports participation fee ($50), but it is a heavier burden on Pittsfield families as the median family income in Bow is nearly double at $113,911.

Pittsfield first introduced the $50 fee during the 2004-05 school year, and the amount hasn’t changed since then. Athletic Director Jay Darrah says the department works with parents who cannot foot the bill.

“We’ve never had to turn a kid away,” Darrah said.

When a family cannot afford the fee, it is often because they have multiple children participating in school sports at the same time and the fees stack up with no cap in place. The school established an athletic scholarship fund where families can apply if they fall within the limits of a household income chart attached to the application.

“I think the fee is fair, especially if they have ways to help people who struggle,” said Pittsfield parent Kyley Maura, who has a freshman son on the soccer team.

No fees here

Allowing students to play free of charge is a point of pride for Jay Wood, Hillsboro-Deering’s athletic director.

“We don’t make them pay a dime,” Wood said. “To my knowledge, in my 11 years (as AD), we haven’t ever had user fees. If we did we wouldn’t have any teams. … It’s just another turnoff for kids and families.”

It’s a similar case in Franklin, where the school district debated whether to incorporate pay-to-play fees in 2016. The district was facing a $1.4 million shortfall for the 2017-18 school budget, but parents, coaches and former athletes argued that a fee would hurt struggling students.

Franklin Athletic Director Dan Sylvester researched the strategy and concluded it would cost $406 per student per sport to cover the $144,000 being cut from the athletics budget that year.

“Anyone that has more than one student-athlete in the family, that’s an exorbitant amount,” Sylvester said at the meeting.

Sylvester said the idea hasn’t been brought up since the 2016 meeting.

“With the amount of money we would need, it is not conducive in our community,” he said, adding that the most he would be comfortable asking for is $25. “It wouldn’t be enough to make it worth going through the hassle.”

Franklin Superintendent Daniel LeGallo sees it as the district investing in its sports programs and students.

“Sports are vital at all levels,” LeGallo said. “The more opportunity kids have to learn the skills of teamwork, hard work and effort the better off they will be. I am a strong supporter of the sport program.”

The city has long rallied around its athletic teams, especially football, which continues to operate as its own team while several districts around the state are combining with neighboring communities in co-op programs.

But Franklin is seeing a dip in sports participation, even without a fee. The football team is slim with a little over 20 players and no JV program.

Sylvester is seeing more kids getting after-school jobs instead of going out for a team.

“We already have numbers issues with less and less kids playing,” he said on a recent phone call. “Even if (a fee turned away) one or two kids, that would have killed me personally.”

Willing to pay

By comparison, many parents are willing to pay for private leagues and off-season coaching for their children and the cost for these leagues go far beyond the fees any school in the state might require.

But playing for the hometown team where the athletes grow up playing the game together, from town rec leagues through middle school and finally, high school, where athletes compete for state titles and have their names etched in school history, is part of the public school experience.

The question of who should pay for it is a different matter.

Bruce Bova, who sat next to Marcotte in a folding chair at Drake Field, put it simply.

“Kids need sports,” he said.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at 369-3321, or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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