Sports

Stuart H.S. Coaches Blast ‘Pay To Play’ Fees

Tuesday night, J.E.B. Stuart High School varsity softball coach M.K. Jennings earned one of the biggest wins of her career, but she quickly turned somber when asked about a new proposed fee of $100 per student, per sport which was recently approved by the Fairfax County School Board, and may be made final at the School Board’s next meeting this coming Tuesday. The “pay to play” policy “would devastate my program and many of the programs here at Stuart,” said Jennings, also a geometry teacher  at the school. “It would absolutely devastate this school. Our programs would just die.”

Tuesday night, J.E.B. Stuart High School varsity softball coach M.K. Jennings earned one of the biggest wins of her career, but she quickly turned somber when asked about a new proposed fee of $100 per student, per sport which was recently approved by the Fairfax County School Board, and may be made final at the School Board’s next meeting this coming Tuesday.

The “pay to play” policy “would devastate my program and many of the programs here at Stuart,” said Jennings, also a geometry teacher  at the school. “It would absolutely devastate this school. Our programs would just die.”

The controversial proposal “terrifies us,” Jennings said. “For my students, $100 is what they might spend a week to eat. I have kids come to me who haven’t eaten all day, because they don’t have the money. A lot of these girls have to miss practices because they have to work to support their families.”

“55 percent of Stuart High School students get free or reduced price lunches,” added assistant coach Lauren Kinne. “The sad thing about it is that a lot of our girls didn’t get a chance to play softball growing up. Their only chance to play organized sports is at the high school level. I don’t think you can put a value on the importance of team sports in a person’s development.”

Students and staff at other local schools expressed sanguine sentiments about the proposed fee to the News-Press, including those at George Mason High School in the City of Falls Church, where a “pay to play” policy was included in this year’s budget, which resulted in, with the exception of an editorial in the News-Press, barely the batting of an eye.

But parents and coaches interviewed at recent J.E.B. Stuart baseball, soccer and softball games were united in their opposition to the idea.

While a fee waiver is expected to be offered to disadvantaged students, it will not be effective, they claim.

“There are two problems with that,” said parent Barry Leopold. “One, a reduced fee may be still too high. Secondly, it requires families to go very public with the fact that they don’t have much money. Some families are comfortable doing that and some families aren’t. The ones that aren’t are going to suffer.”

Parent George Waters agreed. “You see children not eating lunch at all because they won’t self-identify as poor,” Waters wrote in a letter to the News-Press, published elsewhere in this edition. “If a student won’t self-identify for food, what are the odds he or she would do so to take a test or to play football? And what of the middle class who might not qualify as being poor enough? A student playing three sports and taking two or three advanced courses could have fees totaling over $500 a year. A student wanting to get a prestigious IB diploma and playing three sports a year would have fees of over $700 a year. What of families with two children in high school?”

Maria Haynes, president of Stuart H.S.’s Athletic Booster Club, said she’s urging all citizens concerned about the proposed fees to attend the school board’s upcoming public hearing about the 2011 budget, which will be held May 11 (and May 12 if necessary) at Jackson Middle School on Gallows Road. To speak at the meeting, citizens must call 571-423-1075 to reserve up to three minutes to address the board.

“If you don’t have these kids, who are already at risk, doing something after school, that $100 fee is not going to save the county from the additional expenses of police enforcement,” said Haynes, who added, “This is a tax, not a fee.”

Sports fees “would be very damaging at this particular school,” agreed varsity boys soccer coach Larry Bernfeld.

“I think it would be really unjust. I don’t think most people realize that Fairfax County already doesn’t give the teams any money. All we get is a very small stipend for coaches, and we have to fund-raise for everything else. So, we’d have to fund-raise for the fees instead of for uniforms. It’s just robbing Peter to pay Paul.

“We give my kids a pair of blue socks, a pair of white socks and a water bottle,” the soccer coach continued. “I charge $20 for that and I generally have to scholarship about half the team. Probably half my team works jobs. One of my players has to work every Thursday. One of his parents has passed away and his family can’t survive without his income.”

Such fees seem to be part of a trend. As part of the 2010-2011 school year budget adopted last week by the Falls Church City Council, George Mason High student-athletes will be charged $100 to participate in a single sport and $25 for each sport after that, although unlike Fairfax County schools, fees will not be charged for IB or AP exams at Mason High in the City of Falls Church.

Mason Athletic Director Tom Horn told the News-Press that all fees will go into a general athletic fund to be split among all sports, and also commented that “historical participation numbers and our strong athletic boosters association leave me perfectly comfortable with our position for next school year.”

One Mason parent, who did not want to be named, has two children who play sports at Mason. She said her family had been helped in the past by the athletic department when new cleats were needed by her children.

“Personally, this would be a hardship, but most people here can afford it,” she said.

She wants to be able to keep her kids playing sports, but already has trouble attending games with her family because of the entry fees. “You want to support the team, but it’s hard.” she said.

Anne Briggs, a Mason junior who runs cross country and track, said, “It would definitely impact my decision to play next year.”

But Quinn Casteel, a star on Mason’s baseball team, believes that the fees aren’t a major issue.

“I haven’t heard much about it,” said Casteel. “I’m sure that if any kids have any issues with it the school will have a program to make sure they can play. I’m sure most families would be happy to pay it. In an area like this, it’s not going to be a big issue. I don’t think it would be too much of an inconvenience for anybody.”

Perhaps the City’s most outspoken opponent of the policy is News-Press Editor Nicholas Benton, who wrote about “pay to play” in an editorial published April 15.

In Fairfax County, opposition to “pay to play” has come from the highest governmental body, the County Board of Supervisors, which voted unanimously recently to urge the School Board to reverse the “pay to play” policy for both educational testing and after school sports.

But the decision remains in the hands of the county’s School Board, which may make a decisive decision to keep the policy at next Tuesday’s meeting.

– Mike Wilson and Nicholas Benton contributed to this report.