Pay-to-play possibilities concern STHS
When South Lake Tahoe voters head to the polls in Tuesday to vote on controversial Measure L, they may hold the future of the city’s middle and high school sports in their hands.
If Measure L, a $60 annual parcel tax, fails to garner at least 66 percent of votes, students at South Tahoe Middle and South Tahoe High will be required to pay for participation in school sports starting in the fall under the “Fair Share” donation schedule. High schoolers who play three sports could end up paying as much as $595 for a single school year as the athletics program attempts to meet a $100,000 shortfall.
There is no payment plan in place at South Tahoe Middle, but Lake Tahoe Unified School District superintendent Diane Scheerhorn said the school will need to make up $75,000 if Measure L fails.
South Tahoe High is collecting $25 from athletes in every sport this year, the first time since the 1980s that STHS students are paying to play. But not every athlete has paid and the athletic department isn’t sure if it will be able to collect all dues. Athletic Director Don Borges said the Fair Share program will require coaches to collect money from students before each season starts.
The most expensive sport at the high school would be basketball, which would require a $210 payment from each player. Tennis and swimming would bear the smallest burden at $90 each. Approximately 65 percent of the fees would go toward transportation costs, with the rest distributed among officials’ fees, insurance, equipment and field maintenance.
South Tahoe High vice-principal Jack Stafford did much of the research into the issue, contacting other schools that have implemented similar plans. He said most of those schools didn’t suffer a drop in participation, but junior Mikey Van Gorden had a different take.
“If (Measure L fails), a lot of my teammates aren’t going to be able to play,” the three-sport athlete said. “Some of us might be able to afford to pay, but there are plenty who can’t.”
The most likely remedy for students who can’t afford to pay the fee would be a scholarship from one of several STHS booster clubs. Mark Garratt, president of the Quarterback Club, said his organization expects to be able to cover expenses for football players but will need to double its current $30,000 budget to do so. Football players would each be required to pay $200 each under the Fair Share plan.
“We’re looking at the worst-case scenario right now and we’re prepared to do what’s needed,” Garratt said. “If a kid wants to play football, he’ll be able to as far as we’re concerned.”
Not every sport would be so lucky. Alpine and nordic skiing already have seen their numbers dwindle over the past few years, while spring sports could suffer the heaviest losses.
“I’m particularly worried about the spring sports, because by then parents may have paid a bunch of money already,” Stafford said. “There are some sports that are definitely in jeopardy.”
Boys’ basketball head coach Derek Allister, who is active in the pro-Measure L movement, said he knows of at least four of his players may not be able to play next season.
“There are some kids who would have to make some very hard choices,” Allister said. “In some families that kind of money is needed just to get a kid through the school year.”
Borges, who is in the process of hiring five new varsity coaches, said the Fair Share plan hasn’t caused any candidates to drop out. But the coaches will likely be charged with collecting the money from their players, and that could cause unneeded tension within the team.
“Our coaches will be a real key ingredient in getting this thing done,” Stafford said. “We’re hoping that putting the burden on them doesn’t turn into a problem.”
Allister agreed that mixing money with high school sports could create some thorny situations.
“It just brings in a number of new variables,” he said. “If a kid’s paying $200, how do you justify sitting him on the bench? Do we want to make our sports about who can afford to pay? It would be a tough situation, especially with such a diverse community.”
Borges, who has worked in the school district for 28 years, admits no one really knows what to expect should Measure L fail, but he’s hoping they don’t have to find out.
“I’m sure there will be an effect, but I don’t have a crystal ball,” Borges said. “It really comes down to this: Does a kid who can’t afford it just not participate in sports? That kid just loses. The uncertainty is frightening.”