Cliff Hite is worried that not every child in Ohio is getting the opportunity to participate in sports and other extra-curricular activities. And that doesn’t sit well with him.
So the Ohio District 1 senator is asking school districts across the state with Pay to Participate programs to take two years to reevaluate their systems and, if necessary, develop alternatives to guarantee no student is left out. Otherwise, he said, legislators may have to step in.
At the end of January, Hite released a white paper entitled “Ohio Pay to Participate/Extra-Curricular & Co-Curricular Activity Fees.” The five-page report was the result of informational public hearings conducted in Columbus, Findlay, Dayton, and Cleveland.
According to data culled from the Ohio High School Athletic Association and University of Findlay doctoral candidate Scott Grant, which was included in the report:
• Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed believe participation in team sports and academic clubs are essential components of a comprehensive education.
• However, 87 percent of state schools with Pay to Participate are not planning to discontinue the program.
• A total of 51 percent of Ohio schools utilized Pay to Participate in their interscholastic athletic programs last school year.
• Of those, 55 percent have a maximum annual charge for each student athlete.
• Sixty-one percent of collected co-curricular fees go directly into the school district’s general fund.
The report recommends that neither a complete ban on Pay to Participate programs nor spending measures covering their fees are currently feasible. However, Hite does suggest school districts need to be transparent about how the fees are being spent, their strategies to eliminate or reduce the fees, and who is being excluded from participating due to the fees.
As chairman of the Joint Education Oversight Committee (JEOC), formed in 2015 to oversee school funding and programs, he is offering the state’s school districts two years to conduct a non-mandatory reevaluation of their Pay to Participate policies, and make necessary adjustments. Beyond that, the JEOC might consider new legislation to remedy students from being eliminated from participation in co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.
“This is a tough time to make ends meet,” Hite said. “All the different programs out there are expensive. I get it. I just want to encourage them to think about what they’re doing. I think people have a right to know where their money is going.”
He said despite $2 billion in state increases in school funding since the last General Assembly, a ban on Pay to Participate would likely cause some school districts to claim they would have to recover the deficit by laying off faculty and staff.
“I’m not about to play that game,” he said.
According to his findings, some Ohio school districts charge anywhere from $650 to $1,000 per student per team sports without a cap. “If you’re charging up to $1,000 per kid without a cap, that’s just outrageous. I’m very much for local control, but I’m not for local out of control.”
And placing those fees in the school district’s general fund to be used for expenditures not related to co-curriculars is unfair, he said.
After the two-year period, if little or no improvements are made to reduce or eliminate fees where possible, and if students are still left out due to affordability, the JEOC will try to intervene, Hite said.
He is adamant that the largest detriment of Pay to Participate is the omission of children who wish to play sports or become involved in other extracurricular activities and can’t afford the fees. He said statistics show the number of students participating has been reduced significantly by the practice.
“I still believe in some places kids are being left out,” Hite said. “To not even have that opportunity – I can’t even imagine how anyone could want that to happen. If somebody is kept out of the mix it’s just horrifically wrong, and it should not be allowed. I’ve seen (sports) programs go downhill because some kids didn’t get a chance.”
There are local school districts using Pay to Participate that attempt to make the playing field level.
Pay to Participate in Wauseon schools includes sports and all other extra-curricular activities. At the high school each student is charged a flat fee of $25, at the middle school a flat fee of $15. A family cap is set at $50.
Students on the free lunch program at school have their fee waived; those on the reduced lunch program have their fee halved.
Matt Hutchinson, the school district’s athletic director, said he can’t speak to the rationale behind the need for Pay to Participate. But he believes the program hasn’t affected student participation rates.
“I don’t feel it has deterred kids in pursuing the extra-curriculars that they’re interested in pursuing,” he said.
Some school districts structure Pay to Participate so that each extra-curricular activity is allocated a certain amount from the fees. Other districts place them in their general fund, where they’re meted across the board. Hutchinson hasn’t considered which method is more beneficial.
“Comparatively, it’s a small amount of money per person, and it doesn’t impact what we do,” he said.
Pike-Delta-York schools charge a yearly $50 extra-curricular activity fee for students in grades 9-12; and $25 annually for students in grades 7-8. Those in the reduced lunch program have reduced fees of $25 and $15, respectively. Those in the free lunch program have their fees waived.
At Evergreen Local Schools, students pay $50 for their first sport and $25 for their second. Participating in a third sport is free. The fees contribute to transportation costs for athletic trips.
Swanton Local Schools Athletic Director Wade Haselman said the district has no immediate plans to make students pay to participate in sports.
“We want to give our kids the ability to play without having to worry about whether they can afford it,” he said of sports. “If a kid is interested in playing a sport in high school (they) shouldn’t be hindered in any way.”
At Archbold Area Schools, Athletic Director Allen Gladieux said a Pay to Participate program has never been discussed by the district’s administrators. “As of right now, it’s not in the works,” he said.
For that reason, Gladieux has no opinion on the matter.
It’s not practiced in Pettisville schools, either, “but that’s not to say that could never happen,” said Athletic Director Brian Leppelmeier. He said no plans for Pay to Participate are necessary at present, but if they ever became necessary he would ensure that all students wanting to participate would.
“I would work hard here to make sure that a student is not not able to participate based on a Pay to Participate situation. A student would not be denied participation because they can’t afford it,” Leppelmeier said.
Barb Figgins, athletic director at Fayette Local Schools, said the school district has never employed Pay to Participate. To her knowledge, it was only discussed once, back in the 1990s when the district feared its levy wouldn’t pass.
She said Pay to Participate is disappointing when it leaves students out.
“If it’s a student at a young age, we don’t know how good that person could become as an athlete because they can’t play,” Figgins said. “If it’s the only way you can do things, you hope to keep it cheap enough that all kids can play.”
The Ohio High School Athletic Association has no control over school districts’ decisions to enact Pay to Participate, according to spokesperson Tim Stried. But it does ask the districts to try to keep the fees low and offer multi-sport or family discounts.
“Schools have reasons for instituting pay to participate fees, but that often leads to students reducing the number of sports they play, or not playing at all, which is very unfortunate,” Stried said. The OHSAA strives to encourage participation in school sports by as many students as possible.”
Hite said if the committee doesn’t hear of improvement, and school districts don’t report on their reevaluations, “then yes, we could intervene with legislation. That’s the last thing I want to see us do. (But) there are ways we can make this better, and that’s what people need to do. Kids can’t be left out.”
David J. Coehrs can be reached at 419-335-2010.