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Misguided priorities in Bangor public schools

Posted June 26, 2012, at 5:14 p.m.

Suppose the Bangor School District suddenly found $7 million in gifts, not taxes, in its budget. How would you feel upon reading the news that all $7 million would be spent to upgrade the high school’s football stadium?

In essence, that’s the decision school superintendent Betsy Webb and her allies on the school board have made. A group called “Friends of Cameron Stadium” has been charged with raising $7 million to rehabilitate the high school’s football stadium using gifts from alumni. Bangor High School graduates will be solicited for the funds by promoting the stadium’s utility for state-level track-and-field competitions, improved physical education options and, of course, football.

I’ve got nothing against athletics in general or football in particular. In fact, both my wife and I were NCAA Division 1 athletes in college. I understand how physical education teaches teamwork, cooperation, sacrifice and the value of hard work. It’s also clear that Bangor, and Maine as a whole, has a childhood obesity problem that would be lessened with more access to better athletics facilities.

But these arguments don’t convince me that all $7 million should go to the football stadium. I would agree to such a plan if I were convinced that our debate team was regularly nationally ranked, our theater and music programs were producing kids that consistently moved on to Juilliard and Broadway and our sciences had a few Westinghouse competition winners each year. Each of these extracurricular activities not only teaches the same values as physical education (teamwork, delayed gratification, the importance of preparation, practice and persistence), but they also do an excellent job of vocational and professional training. Debaters become lawyers or legislators, skilled actors and musicians perform professionally and the applied sciences are always looking for creative and dedicated practitioners.

Bangor High School’s teachers should be commended for the excellent work they do under less-than-ideal financial circumstances. Are their classrooms, laboratories and theaters so state-of-the-art that none of the $7 million should be spent on upgrading them? What about those working in vocational, professional or psychological counseling? In today’s troubled economy, that’s where I would put some of that $7 million.

We should be thinking about how these gifts can be used to assist as many students as possible in finding the kind of fulfilling employment they desire. Very few of Bangor’s football players are going to make the NFL or even earn Division 1 football scholarships. More of the school’s students will become doctors, managers, CPAs, journalists, architects, poets and computer engineers, and we should assist these students in their dreams as well.

It has been said — by Superintendent Webb and others — that donors only want to give to “brick-and-mortar projects” and that football is about community pride. But the empirical record doesn’t back that up. In 2010, the Boston Globe reviewed Northeastern University’s decision to end its football program and concluded “there has been little or no blowback from alumni or students, as money once spent on football now serves other campus goals. In fact, the number of donors is up (from 19,559 to 21,797) as is the number of applicants (37,693 for 2,800 spots), and the stature of the university continues to rise.”

On the other end of the spectrum is Rutgers University in New Jersey, which made enormous investments in its football program and stadium over the last decade. An investigation by the Newark Star-Ledger revealed that university administrators were unable to keep their promise that these investments would be self-supported by increased donations and revenue.

The subsidy to maintain the athletics department ballooned to $26.8 million in 2010. The deficit for athletics had grown so disproportionate that this past May Bloomberg News reported each of Rutgers’ 30,000 undergraduates were paying almost $1,000 of their annual tuition to subsidize athletic teams — whether they participated in athletics, watched them or ignored them. As Kristen Clarke, a Rutgers senior, told the Star-Ledger, “You would be hard-pressed to find someone today who is in favor of the stadium expansion instead of investing in new technology, such as digital classrooms.”

Prioritizing athletics at the expense of other extracurricular activities creates additional problems. Athletes become privileged, and those who exploit them — primarily coaches and administrators — can be forced by community pressure to react in unethical or even unconscionable ways. Just ask the administration of Penn State, which faces tremendous financial and reputational challenges because of the unethical decision-making created by football’s privilege.

A small group of residents — my wife is one — has testified before the school committee in support of committeewoman Kate Dickerson’s proposal to look into creating an extracurricular endowment that would support some of the endeavors listed above. The school board rejected the idea of even just investigating whether the public, and Bangor High’s graduates, would financially and cooperatively support any extracurricular funding besides the football stadium.

As the parent of two future Bangor High graduates, I worry that the school board and Dr. Webb are misguided in their myopic advocacy of stadium building. I’ve already graduated from high school, so this isn’t about me or my wife. This is about those current and future students who will feel slighted — with good reason — when their extracurricular interests are clearly deemed less important than football games or track meets.

Michael Socolow is a Bangor homeowner and parent of two children in the Bangor public school system.

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