April 15, 2010

Mass. high school cuts all sports programs

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The hardest part of Joe Russo's job as athletic director at Mansfield (Mass.) High used to be keeping up with all of the success the school's teams have.

"Both the basketball teams played at the TD Garden," he said as he began to rattle off achievements. "The gymnastics team was second in the state, the hockey team made the playoffs, the swimming team did great as a team and individually - so did the wrestling.

"Everything we competed in during the winter we did well. I've got more plaques than places to put them."

Tuesday night, however, the sports teams were dealt a serious setback; they were eliminated from the school budget for the next school year. Facing a $1.8 million shortfall, the school committee came to the conclusion that sports had to be cut.

And while school districts have been known to propose shocking cuts to get the attention of those in the district, Russo said this isn't a scare tactic. It's reality.

"There's no other place to go," he said. "They been paring it down and paring it down since December. As they've been going through this, they reached a point where there's no other place to pull money from. When you've got a shortfall, you've got a shortfall."

UPDATE: The town found money to save sports for one year.

School districts across the country are facing budget issues and frequently turn to extracurricular activities as a last resort to save money. But while pay-to-play fees are becoming common and many schools are considering limited travel, the number of games and the amount of non-varsity sports, this is believed to be the first district to eliminate sports altogether.

It's somewhat surprising that Mansfield would be the first town to do so.

Sports long have been a big part of Mansfield High - arguably the most successful program in the nine-school Hockomock League in which it competes. The school has won the Val Muscato award, given to the school with the best overall winning percentage in all sports, in four of the past five years. Its football team is a regional power.

Eliminating sports will save the district more than $600,000. That's why sports isn't the only thing on the list to go - it's all extracurricular activities.

"This is not just athletics," Russo said. "Anything that would happen after 2 p.m. will not exist. Student government, yearbook, clubs, choir, band, color guard - you name it."

Wickedlocal.com, the Web site for the Mansfield News, reported school superintendent Brenda Hodges told the meeting that there were no other options. The report said she noted the district - which has just one high school with an enrollment of roughly 1,500 - had cut more than six dozen positions in the last three years.

"I know what you have before you tonight is heart-wrenching, and it is for me, but there's no other way we're going to balance the budget," Hodges said. "It's an extremely difficult decision for me as the superintendent to even look at these kinds of cuts that I have to put on paper. It has been very painful."

Parents and students in the community have reacted with disbelief in the past few days. A meeting Wednesday night drew more than 300.

"I can't see it happening," Christine Hernon told The Boston Globe as she watched two of her children compete Thursday. "People will start sending their kids to private schools. It doesn't make sense."

Joe Oram, a junior who plays football and basketball player and is heavily involved in arts programs, is stunned.

"I really just don't know what to think," he told The Sun Chronicle Thursday. "I never thought it would happen."

Russo said the impact of suddenly no longer having athletic teams would be felt in a number of ways - many of which are off the playing field.

"Any school system's mission is to educate and challenge a student - you lose a portion of that mission," he said. "It's easy to say, it's just sports. But when you look at the big picture - the collaboration with teammates, learning to lead, being responsible for your own behavior - you're losing part of your education.

"I know it's different than being in the classroom, but you're learning so many things that you don't get in the classroom - the goal setting, the daily competition. These are 21st century skill sets that you will bring to any job."

To save sports, Russo said there needs to be 21st century thinking.

"There's user fees and fundraising that could be part of the answer," he said "Tax overrides ... money within the town from outside the school district."

Money, however, is tight everywhere. And Russo said the people in community know this decision wasn't made hastily.

"The school administration and the school committee didn't enjoy doing this," he said. "If there was something out there, they would find it and get it done. There's no extra money anywhere."

Russo, in his 23rd year in the district, said he is cautiously optimistic the town will find an answer.

"In this particular town, with its fighting attitude, I say there's a good chance," he said. "Parents want what's best for their kids."

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