Written by SportsDayDFW.com
High school athletic departments prepare game plans for budget cuts
Sometime over the next two summers, 60 McKinney ISD coaches will spend three weeks in a training program to obtain their commercial driver’s license. They’ll be their teams’ new bus drivers, shuttling players to and from games so the district can save money as it braces, like every district in North Texas, for a massive state budget shortfall.
So large is the state’s budget shortfall — cuts to public education spending will probably be between $4 billion and $7.8 billion over the next two years — that athletics, the hallowed ground for high schools, is taking the first of what athletic directors and coaches fear are increasingly grim hits.
The Dallas Morning News contacted 20 area school districts regarding possible athletic cuts, and all but two have downsized or plan to downsize.
Athletic departments are planning to scale back operating expenses without greatly altering the kids’ experiences, including reduced travel and tournaments and vacant coaching positions left open.
No athletic director or coach interviewed recalled facing a crisis of such magnitude. And they fear that the problem will only get worse.
“I’ve never been involved in anything like this in my life,” Dallas ISD athletic director Jeff Johnson said.
“In my 29 years, there’s always issues that come out; you’ve got to tighten your belt and do what you have to do. We’ve always been able to be resilient and bounce back. That’s what’s scary about this; this has the potential to change the face of education and all the things that go with it.”
Changes, creative adjustments, sacrifices, a return to reality — these are phrases athletic directors have used to describe the tough choices they must make.
Of the districts contacted, only Frisco, facing projected losses between $3 million and $16 million, and Grand Prairie, facing projected losses between $15 million and $26 million, planned no athletic cuts.
Only Plano plans to cut sports programs, targeting middle school tennis, an after-school program that had no full-time coaches. Carrollton-Farmers Branch ISD did the same last year.
But jobs are going away. McKinney ISD has removed one of its two assistant athletic directors. DeSoto had to cut five coaches through layoffs and attrition, including two at the varsity level. Cedar Hill lost nine coaches, seven of them at the varsity level.
Each Lewisville ISD high school will lose a varsity assistant through attrition. For example, Hebron lost its tight ends coach, who was also an assistant with the wrestling program, but the school will still have 13 football coaches on staff. No districts are sure how much lower their funding will be next school year. Their uncertainty will continue until the state Legislature has finalized its budget plans this summer.
Most athletic departments have been forced to float increasingly grim scenarios, depending on which budget number comes to fruition.
Richardson ISD athletic director Bob Dubey said he had three scenarios, ranging from about 7.5 percent in cuts for a districtwide $20 million shortfall to possible staff reductions if the shortfall is on the high end of its predictions, $54 million.
“Personnel is 85 to 90 percent of the budget in almost every school district,” Dubey said. “So everyone’s concerned with that, as I am if we get to that point. But I’m hoping that we’ll have an answer prior to that. I know that we are doing everything we can right now to not lose programs or personnel.”
As part of a 15 percent budget reduction, Keller ISD plans to cap the number of non-varsity teams that participate in each sport, including football, making tryouts a new reality.
How many teams each sport can field has yet to be determined. Several school districts plan to send junior varsity teams to one tournament each season rather than three, cutting down on entry and transportation fees.
Less money will be spent on meals for teams. Kids will wear uniforms for an extra year or two. Rising gas prices have increased the problems and the frustration. Region I Class 4A schools such as Lake Dallas must travel to play Panhandle schools in first-round playoff games and El Paso schools in the second round.
Lake Dallas ISD athletic director Scott Head said schools pay more for buses as a result and for mileage for officials.
“Gas prices and budgets,” Head said, “they all stink.”
The reductions are, for the most part, minor sacrifices, minimal changes that save jobs and teams. Yet the cuts and prospect of more to come have put athletic staffs in an uncomfortable position.
For Dallas ISD, which is facing the largest potential shortfall with estimates at $123 million, Johnson would be forced to make cuts to what is already one of the most frugal departments in the area.
DISD spends less per student than any other area school district, according to figures from the Texas Education Agency. Johnson said he’s not at the point of making cuts, but “everything is on the table, and everything will be looked at. We understand it’s a new day,” he said.
Money and athletics
Those who think sports are outside a school’s educational mission often point to palatial facilities — such as Allen’s planned $60 million, 18,000-seat stadium — as an example of excess and misplaced priorities.
It’s true that facilities are often the most visible, permanent and expensive symbols of the prominence high school athletics hold in Texas. But most of the funds for those facilities come from bond issues, unaffected by the state’s budget quandary.
“There’s always going to be confusion as to where the money comes from for an Allen stadium, for example, and maintenance and operations,” Frisco ISD athletic director David Kuykendall said.
Although the TEA provides figures for athletics and related activities, it’s difficult to pinpoint the exact cost of athletics. According to TEA’s figures — which include direct equipment costs, coaching stipends and funds used for drill teams, pep squads and cheerleaders — the average cost for athletics statewide is $157 per student, only 2.4 percent of the average total operating expenditures.
In the Dallas area, that figure ranges from as high as $303 in Highland Park ISD to as low as $52 in Dallas ISD. The cost is undoubtedly higher, because the average does not include teaching salaries for athletic administratorsand coaches. Transportation, maintenance and utilities expenses might not be reflected, either, because their inclusion is left to the discretion of each district.
Value of athletics
Hebron football coach and Texas High School Coaches Association president-elect Brian Brazil explains athletics’ deeper meaning through the story of James Cook.
Cook played football at Hebron, but he wasn’t a star. Brazil said Cook grew up without a strong father figure or under ideal circumstances. He has served as a Marine for eight years, and he comes back to tell players how football helped him through high school and the tough times of basic training. More than physical activities, Brazil said, athletics are agents of help for at-risk students.
“Kid after kid you see connecting with coaches and then keeping out of trouble,” Brazil said.
But how high should athletics rank on the list of a school district’s priorities? When faced with cuts, James Golsan, education policy analyst for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, said schools should save funds reserved primarily for education before anything else.
“If you are using state funds and those funds are allocated to educate students, there is a level where education should absolutely be the priority,” he said.
Richard Kouri, public affairs director with the Texas State Teachers Association, lumped athletics with special education, arts, gifted education and others as integral programs but parts of the budget that must be examined should the Legislature give less to schools.
“I do believe extracurriculars are important and should be looked at for a well-rounded education. On the other hand, we have to be able to get these kids ready for a harder series of tests with fewer resources from the state.”
While the proposed cuts might look meager, many athletic directors fear that this crisis is an opening salvo in a much broader conflict. Deeper cuts could linger on the horizon.
“That is the day that I do not want to see,” Lancaster ISD athletic director Beverly Humphrey said. “It’s going to be very ugly. We thought we had made tough decisions this time.
“I’d prefer not to think about it, but I’d be lying if I said that it wasn’t in the back of my mind, and that I wasn’t already thinking about some of the cuts that we might be forced to make.”
Kouri said that solutions needed to address a structural deficit in the budget aren’t being proposed.
“You’d like to think we have this bad patch, and it’s going to get better,” Kouri said. “But actually, the prevailing theme is it’s bad — and it’s going to get bad.”
Decisions that seemed unthinkable a decade ago — such as charging significant participation fees for students, moving athletics outside of the school day, or using part-time coaches not affiliated with the school in an instructional capacity — might have to be considered, some athletic directors say.
“Have we had some foo-foo in the past?” DeSoto athletic director Pam DeBorde asked. “There’s no doubt that we’ve been blessed in Texas. But I think there’s some tough stuff ahead.”