November 10, 2019
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24 families said Brunswick sports treated girls unequally. The high school is eyeing an overhaul.

Stock photo | Pixabay
Stock photo | Pixabay
After pressure from two dozen families, the Brunswick School Department will review its high school athletic programs to determine whether they are granting girls and boys equal opportunities to participate in sports as required under federal law. In a related move, it’s also asking privately run clubs that raise money for the teams to consolidate and overhaul their operations.

After pressure from two dozen families concerned that football is taking the best game times — and, therefore, fundraising times — at the expense of girls’ sports, the Brunswick School Department will review its high school athletic programs to determine whether they are granting girls and boys an equal chance to participate as required under federal law. In a related move, it’s also asking privately run clubs that raise money for the teams to consolidate and overhaul their operations.

The compliance review by the law firm Drummond Woodsum will examine girls’ and boys’ access to facilities, game schedules, booster club spending, coaches’ pay and other athletic benefits, Superintendent Paul Perzanoski said. It comes after 24 families complained in writing last year that there is a disparity in resources for Brunswick High School girls, particularly girls’ soccer.

The families’ concerns stem not from public spending but, rather, the potential influence of private money through booster clubs, for which the school district did not readily have detailed financial records. Under the anti-discrimination law Title IX, schools can’t accept outside funds that result in unequal treatment of boys and girls, or they have to make up the difference.

“We can accept money as a gift, but we still have to make sure that we maintain equity across the board,” Perzanoski said. As for the review, “Why not find out how you’re doing? It certainly makes things a lot more open and gets you in a position so you can change things and correct things if you need to.”

It’s not clear how much money the 21 booster clubs that support high school sports have spent over time and for what purposes, but a group of parents has asserted that game schedules have mainly put girls’ teams at a disadvantage for raising money through the concessions stand known as the snack shack. They have more frequently played in the afternoon when few people can attend.

Allowing booster clubs to continue as they are “would place the district in precarious legal standing, forcing parents to look at direct legal action through the [federal Office for Civil Rights],” Jonathan Banks, who has two daughters and a son who play soccer, wrote in a Sept. 6 letter to the school board. “No one wants this to happen.”

Athletes’ parents grew concerned after too many people from the girls’ varsity and junior varsity soccer and field hockey teams had to share a bus for a long ride to a game last year, according to another letter sent to administrators on Oct. 31, 2018, and signed by 24 families.

Girls had to sit on bags in the aisle and squeeze three to a seat. The parents said they didn’t see that happening to the football team. Perzanoski said the school has corrected the bus situation.

Once they began speaking with one another, the parents realized there was a more insidious issue, said Banks, whose daughters, one a senior and the other a junior, are captains of the girls’ varsity soccer team: The school was giving the best game times — at night — to the football team.

That’s when attendance is high and a team can raise three to four times more money compared with day games from food sales, which are then funneled back to the team, Banks said. Booster club money may go toward uniforms and equipment or extras such as one-time jackets for a championship team.

Meanwhile, the school was scheduling girls’ soccer, and other teams that play on a field, in the afternoon, usually at 3:30 p.m., when few parents and other spectators could attend and purchase items from the snack shack, Banks said.

Ideally the school would install lights on the field that the soccer teams use, so they could play at night, more people could attend and teams besides football would have more of a chance to raise money, Banks said. But lights are expensive. So he would like soccer to use the field that the football team uses. It is surrounded by a track and lights, so athletes can play at night. Plus there is room in the schedule, so the football team wouldn’t have to change its game times.

“We have been told that having too many games on the main field would hurt the turf, which is likely true, but it’s illegal to make the girls teams miss out on access to facilities so that the boys football team can have a better field,” Banks wrote in the September letter.

It’s possible to see online the schools’ planned game schedules for this season and schedules for past seasons going back to 2016. They show that, for varsity girls’ and boys’ soccer, girls’ field hockey and boys’ football — the single-sex teams that play on a field in the fall — boys will have played 32 games, and girls 13 games, at night. That’s mostly because of football.

The track is under construction right now, so it’s not possible to use the lighted field, Perzanoski said, but next year both girls’ soccer and football will play under the lights. Perzanoski plans to retire at the end of the school year.

This season the school has pushed back some of the girls’ varsity soccer start times to 5 p.m.

Banks, who manages the snack shack for girls’ soccer, said he’s already seen a difference in the amount of money the booster club has raised because of the later start time.

But he is still concerned about the school’s accounting of booster funds. They have to be spent relatively equitably under Title IX, and that is difficult to do with many individual clubs raising money for their own purposes. If the district doesn’t know how much money was raised and where it was spent, it can’t know if it’s meeting legal requirements, Banks said. He questions whether there’s equity because of the amount of business he’s seen at the snack shack in the afternoon compared with the night.

Perzanoski provided the balances in each student activity account as of June. (It did not state what they raised and spent throughout the year.) In that month, boys-only sports teams held $18,520 more than girls-only teams. It’s currently not possible to see how much parents and community members contributed to each activity through their booster clubs.

“Right now the monies are commingled and we are tasked over the next year with breaking it out,” Perzanoski said.

Perzanoski is also trying to consolidate dozens of high school booster clubs into a total of three nonprofits: one for parent-teacher groups, another for the arts and a third for sports. His next step will be to connect representatives of those three possible groups with an attorney to start the IRS paperwork.

“That’s our suggestion. They don’t have to do this if they don’t want to do this,” he said.

In some school districts, the idea of pooling fundraising efforts and consolidating booster clubs has been met with resistance from parents.

A decade ago, parents of athletes at Portland high schools, especially those who were actively raising funds, felt that the results of their hard work would be handed over to groups that did not put in as much effort. But ultimately the results of an investigation by the Office for Civil Rights within the U.S. Department of Education — that threatened to put the schools’ federal funding at risk — strongly suggested that the district join together the booster clubs.

In Brunswick, auditors have recommended a more formal structure for booster clubs to better account for the private funds.

“One of the reasons we’re moving toward the new nonprofit situation is because we’re not completely comfortable with the process that we have now,” Perzanoski said. “We gather the money, we tally it up and we hold that money for them, but it’s not a system that gives us a lot of security and feeling good at night that everything is 100 percent.”

Having many individual booster clubs with competing priorities makes it more difficult for school districts to ensure that money is flowing relatively equally between girls’ and boys’ teams, said Michael Burnham, the executive director of the interscholastic division of the Maine Principals’ Association.

“It’s much easier if you have an all-sports booster,” Burnham said.

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Ultimately, the school district is responsible for where the money ends up, even if it was privately raised.

“When people donate money, they think it’s going to a specific team or activity. Teams and booster clubs have to be very careful to walk that line, so they’re not misleading people,” Burnham said. “If one team is benefiting more than another, have we got a problem? They need to find other ways to level the playing field.”

Some teams, such as football and ice hockey, are inherently more expensive, and Title IX allows for that, said Gerry Durgin, executive director of the Maine Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. The law’s purpose is not to subtract teams or benefits for boys but to ensure equivalent benefits.

To determine whether schools provide equivalent benefits, the Office for Civil Rights has historically examined a wide range of factors, such as game and practice times, travel allowances, coaches’ compensation, locker room and competition facilities, equipment and supplies and even publicity. It’s also examined whether girls’ participation in sports is proportionate to their school enrollment.

Schools can and should initiate Title IX reviews on their own, Durgin said, particularly when it comes to booster club spending, which may have little oversight.

Perzanoski didn’t know how there grew to be so many booster clubs. They were all present before he joined the district in 2008.

“I think it’s just culture and tradition,” he said. “Sometimes, after a long period of time, the world changes, and culture and tradition need to change along with it.”

Maine Focus is a journalism and community engagement initiative at the Bangor Daily News. Questions? Write to mainefocus@bangordailynews.com.

 



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