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Studies show student activities play an important role in a complete education, helping raise grades and keeping kids in school.
But in recent years, the important issue for many Alaska school districts hasn't been how you play the game, but how you pay for it.
With school budgets getting tighter, districts have had to look for other funding sources to pay for student activities such as sports, music, drama, and student government. Paying for activities has gone beyond traditional band candy fund-raisers, and some school districts rely on sophisticated booster clubs to raise money. Some communities, such as Juneau, have earmarked a portion of local sales tax revenues for youth activities.
With shrinking budgets and rising education costs, activity programs face financial problems. But they're still worth it, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.
"At a cost of only 1 to 3 percent (or less in many cases) of an overall school's budget, high school activity programs are one of the best bargains around," the federation wrote in its report "The Case for High School Activities."
"It is in these vital programs - sports, music, speech, drama, debate - where young people learn lifelong lessons as important as those taught in the classroom," it said.
The NFHS report details studies from around the country showing that students who participate in high school activities tend to have higher grade-point averages, better attendance and discipline records, lower use rates of drugs and alcohol, and better success in college. With new academic standards for students, school activities can be a way to help students improve their classroom performance.
"We need to look at the value of activity programs as being just as significant as lowering classroom size," said Dave Dirksen, the superintendent of Metlakatla's Annette Island School District and president of the Alaska School Activities Association's Board of Control.
"Student activities are an important part of the instructional part of education," he said. "No one can look at the research and say activities are not a big part of success in the classroom."
Juneau's fund-raising machine
As budgets have gotten tighter, many schools have turned to the community for student activities funding, and Juneau-Douglas High School has produced the state's model for fund-raising.
The Juneau School District budgets $101,840 out of its operating budget for student activities, with another $110,000 coming from the district's share of a 0.5 percent city sales tax devoted to youth activities. An additional $90,000 of the sales tax revenue goes to student travel. The total is about 0.3 percent of the district's $44.3 million budget.
So JDHS turned to booster clubs to help fund the rest of its activities budget, which is one of the highest in the state. Juneau offers 39 activities, including 10 competitive sports - baseball, basketball, cross-country running, football, soccer, softball, swimming, track, volleyball and wrestling.
But some of those sports, such as football, soccer, baseball and softball, were introduced after budgets began to get tight. Other than some administrative costs, those sports are supported entirely by community fund-raising.
The football team is funded by the Juneau Youth Football League, which has an annual budget of around $235,000 to cover the high school team and all of the JYFL's youth football programs, said JDHS head coach Reilly Richey. Most of that budget goes into travel expenses, and the high school's share runs about $75,000 to $100,00 a year, depending on whether the Crimson Bears have to travel to playoff games.
Richey said his players each have to raise about $1,100 for the JYFL in order to play. That total doesn't include the $230 out-of-pocket money required by activity fees, and the student also has to provide cleats (two pairs) and road-trip meal money.
To satisfy their JYFL obligations, players have to sell about $600 in ads for the team program, plus another $400 in raffle tickets. They also have to raise about $100 through the Chorebusters program, where football players are hired by community members to do odd jobs such as raking leaves, clearing brush, or other tasks for about $11 an hour.
"You can look at the negatives, like I'm sure we lose a couple of athletes because they don't want to do all the fund-raising," Richey said. "But there are positives as far as motivating the team. Our kids have paid the price and they love football."
Raffles are a popular fund-raising method for sports and other activity groups. Other fund-raisers include the annual swim team Christmas tree sale and the volleyball team's auction. Teams also take turns running concession stands for events held at the school.
Swim team coach John Wray said his team's budget is $21,000, with the tree sale raising about $6,000.
"We're like track. The more successful we are, the more it costs," Wray said, referring to the additional cost of travel to tournaments.
Boys basketball coach George Houston said it takes about $50,000 to get all three of his teams through the season. He said the school district pays for the varsity and junior varsity teams to go to Region V games in Sitka and Ketchikan, but won't pay for the C team or nonregion travel. When Juneau hosts Sitka and Ketchikan, the school keeps the gate receipts. But the gate from Juneau's other home games goes to the team.
The basketball players each pay a $60 activity fee to the school, and the Fast Break Club, the boys team's booster club, raises money through concessions, school dances and a raffle. Houston's annual basketball camp also has pumped between $4,000 and $7,000 into the fund, but this year school construction means he can't hold it.
One reason expenses are so high for a school such as JDHS is it's off the main road system so it's harder to get teams to play here.
Schools such as Juneau end up having to sweeten the pot to get nonregion teams to visit, but even then it can be hard to fill out the schedule.
Richey said the football team buys 20 airline tickets for visiting varsity teams, down from 28 a couple of years ago. But with Juneau's new junior varsity team the JYFL ends up buying 38 tickets when a school brings its varsity and JV teams south.
Houston said Juneau will pay about $2,000 for a school to play two basketball games, and last year Juneau and Sitka teamed up to pay $3,000 to bring teams to Southeast. The Juneau Soccer Club paid $2,000 to the Colony High School and Wasilla High School girls teams to play early season games in Juneau last fall.
Even by paying their way south, it can be difficult to get other Class 4A teams to come to Juneau. The Juneau boys and girls basketball teams both didn't play their full 22-game allotment this season, and Houston said he's having a difficult time getting a full schedule for next year. He said the teams in Fairbanks have similar problems, and the teams up north want to play Juneau but only at their home gyms.
"My first nine years, it took some work, but I always managed to get 11 home games and 11 away games," Houston said. "This is the first year we couldn't fill the schedule. Even when we had Carlos (Boozer, who is entered in June's NBA draft), it was a struggle to fill the schedule. It certainly has gotten worse. There's got to be some way everyone in the state can get a full schedule."
In fact, the Anchorage School District's student activity guide states that, except for state meets, special waivers must be approved whenever the six ASD high schools play games outside of Anchorage or its two nearest boroughs (the Kenai Peninsula and the Matanuska-Susitna boroughs). This is the same waiver system the school district uses for trips to the Lower 48.
So what happens is a situation like the 1999 football season, when the Service Cougars took road trips to Hawaii and Washington but made Juneau pay to bring the Cougars south for a regular Cook Inlet Football Conference league game.
"ASAA may need to step in," Houston said, suggesting that teams must schedule a minimum number of games in state before being allowed to travel Outside.
Dirksen of the Alaska School Activities Association agrees there's a problem, but he's not sure ASAA can do anything about it because the organization tries to let school districts maintain local control.
He said the recent Class 5A proposal, which will be considered again during ASAA's meeting in late September, may help because it will put the state's 14 largest schools into two conferences and force them to play each other on an annual basis.
Creating an endowment
Travel costs have been so high some schools have chosen not to attend state meets, even when they qualified, because they weren't sure they could be competitive enough to warrant the expense.
In 1989, the Wrangell girls basketball team didn't go to the state tournament after finishing second in the region. Mount Edgecumbe also qualified for a state tournament a few years back, but didn't send the team.
Last fall, the Craig girls cross-country running team won the Region V-Class 1A-2A-3A title but only sent a couple of students to the state meet. Dirksen said when Metlakatla's boys basketball team qualified for the Class 3A state tournament in March it added $12,000 to $15,000 to the district's activities budget
This year, ASAA introduced the Alaska Endowment for Youth Activities, which has a separate board from ASAA. Dirksen said the goal is to raise an endowment fund of between $12 million and $20 million, then use the interest to help get teams to state meets. Schools were allowed to schedule an extra basketball game this year, with the proceeds being sent to ASAA for the fund.
"It'll be a mini-permanent fund," Dirksen said.
He said ASAA used to be a part of the Alaska Department of Education until the 1980s. Then the state Legislature phased it into becoming a private nonprofit group. When it was part of the state, ASAA used to be able to fund about half of each team's travel to state tournaments. He's hoping the endowment fund can help.
"We had about a dozen or so endowment games this season," Dirksen said. "It's a small start, and we're getting ready to start an aggressive campaign to raise the money we need to really get the endowment fund going."
Charles Bingham can be reached at email@example.com.