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Nancy Smith

Kill High School Sports? It's Intimidation, It Won't Happen

March 20, 2011 - 7:00pm

"In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards."
-- Mark Twain

Did the great American author and humorist have a premonition? Did he meet W.C. Gentry in some futuristic dream?

You have to wonder how Mark Twain would categorize Gentry, the Duval County School Board chairman who last week told district parents and taxpayers that the school system can't afford to educate their kids.

It is $97 million over budget.

And how will he meet the deficit challenge? Among other things, by canceling sports of any kind, at any level, starting this fall.

Seems county property tax revenues are flat and Gov. Rick Scott won't hear of raising taxes. In fact, the governor says stimulus subsidies for school districts must end.

So, to cover a $97 million shortfall, you apparently kill the district's entire sports program that costs, what? Is it even $1 million? Of course not. With the active and enthusiastic business and Booster clubs in Jacksonville, is it even $500,000? Is it $200,000?

Gentry's finance staff couldn't immediately tell Sunshine State News on Friday how much sports costs the school system. The only figure they release for public consumption is $6.3 million, which they list as covering "all supplements for extracurricular activities, including sports, band and other clubs."

A $97 million sports program -- twice the U.S. Olympic Committee's estimated cost of fielding our national team in the 2012 Olympics in London? I don't think so.

Gentry is making scary noises 1) to fire up a PR campaign of angry, sports-loving parents and taxpayers who he hopes will lobby the Florida Legislature against the budget cuts, and 2) to distract from his failure to come up with a plan to trim nonessential personnel, or explain why that can't be done. Employee costs are by far the largest share of a school board's budget. Shouldn't he be talking about that before declaring the need to go to a four-day school week and dump sports, music and arts programs?

This isn't a clever maneuver by an elected official, it's an appalling show of lack of imagination and disrespect for the citizens of Duval County.

Seems to me the governor is saying this: You need more money? Show me. Show me why you've exhausted your creativity and you can't make Florida schools more competitive with what you've got and you can't trim any more than you have already. These aren't pretend bad times. The bad economy isn't just happening in the other 49 states. To get better, we have to work better, work smarter.

Duval's School Board budget is more than $1 billion. Ninety-seven million represents less than 10 percent. You mean Gentry and the district's financial gurus can't find 10 percent of nonessential employee and nonstudent program bloat to cut out over a single deli-sandwich-and-black-Magic-Marker working lunch?

Getting rid of high school sports in Duval would leave 15,000 student athletes without a team. Consider, too, that in February, 50 Duval high school seniors signed letters-of-intent to attend college or university on an athletic scholarship.

As Frederick Matthews of the Jacksonville City Hall Examiner said, "Football and basketball generate money, scholarships, and jobs for schools and many adults who have made a career out of school athletics. (Killing them is) not going to happen."

I know the folks in Duval County. I know they're resourceful, positive and proud of their accomplishments as a community. They deserve better than lawyer W.C. Gentry.

Meanwhile, in St. Johns County, Duval's neighbor to the south, Superintendent of Schools Joseph Joyner is looking at a $16 million deficit. Admittedly, St. Johns is a much smaller district than Duval. But proportionately, the difference between them is not that great.

Joyner has the larger spirit.

Instead of moaning and decrying Tallahassee, he is busy getting the word out to parents and taxpayers -- even to school personnel -- that no student program is likely to come under the ax in St. Johns. And that includes athletics.

Joyner made a point of affirming his commitment to athletics. He calls all after-school programs "co-curriculum" rather than extra-curriculum. You can't separate them from math, English, science or any part of the so-called core curriculum, he says.

Unlike Gentry in Duval, Joyner is happy to talk about how little the St. Johns School District pays for its sports programs. In a letter to district employees, he wrote, "Most of the costs are absorbed by our pay-to-play plans and Booster Club donations. We would not net any significant financial gain by cutting athletics, yet we would lose a great deal for our students."

Duval County school system doesn't have pay-to-play. In St. Johns, every school has it. At Bartram Trail, for example, students pay $45 to participate in a single sport. The fee increases to $80 for two sports, $115 for three.

Joyner continued, "Our district spends very little of its funding in support of athletics. Aside from paying a small supplement to coaches, we use a minimal amount of our operating funds to support these programs. In fact, athletics are a great value for the resources the district uses. Most of the costs are absorbed by our pay-to-play plans and Booster Club donations. ...

"Instead of targeting athletics and co-curricular activities for removal, I believe we should embrace their value and work to support the many dedicated parents and staff members who give so unselfishly to our students."

Scheduling will be a nightmare if Duval goes through with its sports cancellations, Joyner admitted. St. Johns and Duval play a lot of varsity games against each other. St. Johns high schools could be looking for five completely new opponents. "But we'll do what we have to do if and when the time comes," he said.

How refreshing. Honesty. And a positive model to share with teachers and others in the district who affect student attitudes.

Joyner said the district will make the cuts it needs to after the Legislature finishes with the budget. And then he went back to work. No intimidation, no fuss.

--
Columnist Nancy Smith can be reached at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com, or at (850) 727-0859.

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