Economy may force high school sports cuts

Posted Dec. 11, 2008, at 8:20 p.m.

Last summer high school athletic programs faced a transportation crisis, specifically how to cope with escalating travel expenses given that diesel fuel hovered near $5 per gallon.

That crisis has abated in the wake of the economic meltdown that has depressed demand for fuel from Beijing to Bangor, but it’s not going away for good as long as the U.S. doesn’t control its oil-producing destiny.

Now the same worldwide recession that has resulted in lower gas prices is threatening area sports programs from another direction.

In Maine, state spending cuts in education prompted by the economic meltdown have school officials from Kittery to Fort Kent looking for ways to save and programs to cut — and athletic programs predictably are being targeted.

The City of Portland this week identified the option of cutting its schools’ spring sports programs as a source of up to $239,000 in savings.

Undoubtedly other communities also will look at sports as a luxury not to be afforded in such trying times.

So what to do?

Surely patience is necessary. Who could have predicted four months ago the economy would be where it is now? Certainly not the politicians.

And steps are being taken. A controversial school regionalization process is under way, and no matter how it plays out it’s inevitable things will change, particularly given the steadily declining school enrollment. First, there will be fewer administrators, later there will be fewer buildings to house the fewer public-school students. Eventually tradition will give way to economics and there will be fewer schools.

Some schools, the town academies that are private yet enter into contractual agreements to educate the public-school students in their home districts, are addressing the budget crunch in a different way — by increasing their populations of international students, who provide significant additional revenue to subsidize existing programs for all.

Some sports fans suggest that given this growing influx of international students, town academies and other private schools in Maine should move toward competing among themselves rather than continuing to battle public-school teams.

It may come to that one day, but I’m not close to being there yet. First of all, that would deprive the majority of the students who still attend the town academies, public school students living in their hometowns, from competing against their peers come tourney time.

And it’s not like private schools are dominating the competition. The Maine Principals’ Association not long ago conducted a study of state championship teams in the sports it sponsors and found the vast majority come from the public school ranks.

That Maine is becoming home to more and more international students is a fact of melting-pot life, and that melting pot is not confined to students from other countries coming to private schools.

There are plenty of international students enrolling in the state’s public school system who are succeeding in athletic settings from the cross country trails to the basketball courts — just as there are plenty of Maine-born students transferring whose moves affect athletic success at both their old and new addresses.

So long as no students are being recruited specifically for athletic purposes, all should be welcome, and it’s incumbent on the MPA to be aggressive in ensuring that the level nature of the playing field remains intact.

We’ve got enough problems already.

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