The Fairfax County School Board is considering the reinstatement of student athletic fees to help make up a projected $140 million budget deficit.
The $100 per-student-per-sport fee is one of more than 50 possible items being considered to decrease the shortfall for next year’s budget. The board and Superintendent Kathy Garza just began the arduous process of crafting a budget proposal in October, but the athletic fee already has been a point of contention on the board and in the community, according to School Board member Sandy Evans (Mason District).
“We are way, way far away from having a proposal,” Evans said. “But seeing this on the table resonates with people. This is something clear-cut that people can grasp exactly what the impact on their family would be.”
As long as she has been on the School Board, Evans has been fighting this student athletic fee.
She was first elected in a March 2010 special election and came into office with the board’s proposed budget for the 2010-11 school year already in place. The budget included a $100 per-sport fee for student athletes, with an exemption for students on free and reduced lunch program, mirroring this year’s proposal.
A year after its introduction, the fee was scaled back for the 2011-12 school year, with a $200 per-student cap in place to prevent undue burden on families. By the 2012-13 school year, the athletic fee was eliminated from the budget entirely. While the school system had projected that the athletic fee would be imposed through 2014, School Board members’ vocal opposition to the fees led to their elimination
“I think we need to encourage all of our students to be active in their extracurriculars, including sports, so I really did not like that barrier,” Evans said. “I really would not care to go down that road if we can possibly avoid it.”
While the waiver for students who receive free or reduced meals is meant to prevent financial roadblocks to athletic participation, Brian Garvey, the student activities director at JEB Stuart High School in Falls Church, said some students still slip through the cracks.
Stuart has 55 percent of its students on the discount meal program, the highest of the county’s high schools. According to Garvey, that leaves a substantial number who sit on the cusp of qualifying for the program or who did not fill out their paperwork.
Stuart’s athletic programs did not see a dramatic drop-off in student participation when the student fee was introduced in 2010, Garvey said, but just a mild decline. Still, he does not want to make light of the consequences for students.
“That doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact on those kids that did come out,” Garvey said. “They were making tough choices and sacrifices to get that $100.”
Despite worries, the budget shortfall must be addressed, and that might include reinstating the student athletic fee. Even with an expected 2 percent increase in funding from the county, $34 million more than last year, the school system would still face a deficit upward of $100 million. The athletic fee is projected to generate $1.8 million for budget.
Terri Towle, the student activities director at Westfield High School, understands the predicament the school system faces. While she too would prefer to avoid the athletic fee, she sees it as a better option than axing academic or athletic programs. Schools have managed it before, she said, and they can do it again.
“We don’t want to see anything cut, but at the same time we have to meet our budget,” Towle said. “Whether it is right is always up for debate, and people will have their say. But we’ve shown at least that it is doable.”