The price to play

PAY TO PARTICIPATE: Local families have been assessed participation fees for nearly eight years to offset athletic costs. Those fees go toward transportation, uniforms, officials, tournament costs and equipment. (Pioneer file photos)

PAY TO PARTICIPATE: Local families have been assessed participation fees for nearly eight years to offset athletic costs. Those fees go toward transportation, uniforms, officials, tournament costs and equipment. (Pioneer file photos)

Area schools charge students to participate in sports

It was simple math.
The money was going out  faster than the money was coming in.
School boards around the state, including those in the Mecosta-Osceola Intermediate School District, had to find a way to continue to provide athletics without dropping programs.
Welcome to pay-to-participate or athletic fees.
Most schools in the area have been charging fees for a decade — ranging from $100 per sport to as little as $25 with family caps anywhere from $90 to $300 — all in an effort to generate more revenue.
How did it come to this?
“Lots of (factors),” said Morley Stanwood Athletic Director Clark Huntey. “Declining enrollment, declining per-pupil foundation allowance from the state. All budget items across the board are increasing faster than the decreases.”
The number of schools within Michigan which have instituted athletic fees has steadily grown since the Michigan High School Athletic Association started keeping track 10 years ago. Nearly 57 percent of the schools responding to a MHSAA survey said they assess participation fees.
The average fee is $85.
Locally, those fees generate up to $25,000 for a school. Most of the schools use that money for uniforms, coaches, supplies, equipment, entry fees into tournaments and transportation.
Every athletic director in the area wishes pay-to-participate fees weren’t instituted.
“We were just looking to offset costs when (fees) were implemented,” Big Rapids Athletic Director Nick Scheible said. “It seemed fair without being over the top.”
Though the MHSAA does not get involved with school issues when it comes to pay-to-participation fees, it does keep a close eye on them.
“The association has always advocated for fully funded extracurricular activities and, in particular, sports,” MHSAA Communication Director John Johnson said.  “(Sports) is generally 1 or 2 percent of the budget and affects up to 75 percent of the student body.”
One of the trends the MHSAA has seen over the years is the more money a family makes, the more likely children can participate in sports.
“That highlights what we have feared,” Johnson said. “School sports is accessible to those who can afford it and that’s a big worry.”
Districts have to consider whether the money they are making from fees is worth the risk of potentially losing students to schools with lower fees, Johnson said.
“A question we ask is do schools make as much money as they say they are and how much do schools lose when they lose a kid and his $7,000 stipend,” he said. “It’s a double-edge thing, but it’s something that we have to be careful about.”
That is why schools in the MOISD have scholarship opportunities for those families who can’t afford the fees, according to Scheible.
“Participation fees have never hindered anyone to participate in athletics and it never will,” he said.
Jim Costie goes back and forth on the fees.
He is a parent who has three student athletes in the Big Rapids school district. Two of those athletes are in high school with a third in middle school.
In total, he paid  $500 this year for his children to participate in athletics — which he pays with reservation.
“I’m 50-50 on it,” he said. “The problem I have is they don’t tend to cut any players and I think it is about the money. On the other hand if that’s what they have to do to still have sports, I’m willing to do it.”
He is hardly alone.
Costie often hears parents in the stands discussing the necessity of the assessed fees.
“A lot of people aren’t happy, especially those parents who pay and their kids don’t play — that’s a big stink,” he said. “I understand it’s a participation fee, but if they aren’t playing, they aren’t participating. The varsity, I can see, but JV, freshmen, middle school, let them all play. It doesn’t matter if they win or lose.”
Most of the athletic directors in the area feel participation fees are here to stay, however, Reed City has eliminated the fees after roughly eight years. That comes on the heels of returning transportation to the district, as well.
“It was a choice of the school board and administration,” Reed City Athletic Director Kris Griffin said. “We feel our parents were hit hard and never wanted participation fees to be a barrier.”
With schools struggling with their budgets on a yearly basis, would it ever be possible to see participation fees eliminated all together?
Huntey believes so.
“If the governor adds to the per-pupil allowance and the increase in the sales tax legislation goes through, yeah, I could see it happen,” he said. “If not, it won’t happen.”

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