Northeast Times

Courting dissension

— That's what the school dis­trict ap­pears to be do­ing as it seeks to col­lect money from youth groups for the priv­ilege of play­ing games in school gym­nas­i­ums.

The way Fran Young sees it, the city already makes out like a ban­dit on the vo­lun­teer­ism of its many in­de­pend­ent youth sports clubs and houldn’t be dip­ping in­to the pock­ets of the folks who keep those clubs afloat.

Thou­sands of coaches and par­ents donate count­less hours of ser­vice to keep kids act­ive, en­gaged and out of trouble.

“There’s sports­man­ship and there’s a so­cial as­pect. [Kids] make friends and it brings their par­ents to­geth­er. It’s a com­munity thing,” aid Young, ath­let­ic dir­ect­or of the Somer­ton Youth Or­gan­iz­a­tion. “We keep them off the street and teach them team­work.”

“We teach kids dis­cip­line, re­spect and re­spons­ib­il­ity,” ad­ded Fran Mur­ray, pres­id­ent of Crispin Gar­dens Ath­let­ic Club.

Yet, a new policy in­tro­duced by the city’s pub­lic school sys­tem threatens the very sur­viv­al of these youth groups. The school dis­trict has be­gun char­ging by the hour for court time in 105 school gym­nas­i­ums, al­though the clubs have had ac­cess to the pub­licly owned and fun­ded gyms free of charge for dec­ades.

“Everything a youth or­gan­iz­a­tion does is stuff that the city can’t do, it can’t af­ford to do,” said City Coun­cil­man Bri­an O’Neill, who op­poses the new fee struc­ture. “This is penny-wise and dol­lar-stu­pid.”

•••

Word of the new fee struc­ture spread among youth club lead­ers and league or­gan­izers early this month as they con­tac­ted city re­cre­ation of­fi­cials to re­serve court times for the up­com­ing bas­ket­ball sea­son.

The De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation man­ages non-school activ­it­ies in the gyms through an agree­ment with the school dis­trict. The clubs were told they’d be charged $57 per hour for a grade school or middle school gym and $72 per hour for a high school gym.

Ini­tially, re­cre­ation of­fi­cials said the fees were to take ef­fect after 7:30 p.m. on weeknights and all day on Sat­urdays at all school gyms.

Just this Tues­day, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter gran­ted a par­tial re­prieve for the clubs as he an­nounced that the city would pay $338,000 in gym fees.

Spe­cific­ally, Nut­ter said, the money will fund court time at 25 gyms un­til 8:30 p.m. on weeknights and all day on Sat­urdays for five months tart­ing Dec. 5.

Yet, the ath­let­ic groups will still have to pay-out-of-pock­et if they want to use any of the oth­er 80 school gyms after 7:30 on weeknights or on Sat­urdays.

Par­ents would bear most of that bur­den. Without the new gym fees, fam­il­ies might have to pay about $100 per child for the en­tire sea­son. But with the fees, a sea­son could cost as much as $500 per child, club lead­ers say.

While some youth groups have their own gyms, oth­ers base their op­er­a­tions at city re­cre­ation cen­ters. In either case, af­ford­able court time will likely be scarce and in high de­mand.

• • •

For the sports clubs, it all comes down to num­bers.

Nut­ter, in Tues­day’s an­nounce­ment, said that 16,000 youths take part in winter sea­son “re­cre­ation­al pro­gram­ming and activ­it­ies.”

In the North­east, for ex­ample, Somer­ton Youth Or­gan­iz­a­tion has about 450 boys and girls, ages 5 to 16, in its bas­ket­ball pro­gram, while Fox-Rok Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation has about 320 kids, 5 to 18. Bustleton Bengals Club serves about 400 chil­dren, some as young as 4, in bas­ket­ball, while Cal­vary Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation serves some 360 kids, ages 4 to 15.

These or­gan­iz­a­tions and dozens more gen­er­ally op­er­ate in-house com­pet­i­tions for young­er and novice play­ers, along with inter-club or travel teams, which com­pete in sev­er­al long-es­tab­lished leagues.

The De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation op­er­ates sev­er­al age-group com­pet­i­tions. So do the North­east Sub­urb­an Ath­let­ic Con­fer­ence (NESAC) for boys and the North­east Girls In­ter­club Bas­ket­ball League or

“Lin­coln League,” each with about 800 kids re­gistered. The North­east Pea­nut League is yet an­oth­er op­tion for club teams.

“The reas­on there’s all these leagues is be­cause the rec de­part­ment can’t handle all these teams,” said Joe Giedemann, the Bustleton Bengals boys’ ath­let­ic dir­ect­or.

For years, the many clubs and leagues have co­ex­is­ted with­in the already lim­ited re­sources of city re­cre­ation cen­ters and pub­lic chools. The vari­ous leagues and clubs seem to get the same fa­cil­it­ies and time slots year after year.

“The rec dir­ect­ors and ADs work hand-in-hand every year,” said George Weiss, a NESAC board mem­ber. “It’s kind of im­plied. Every­body knows where they’re go­ing to be.”

• • •

Ac­cord­ing to O’Neill, school gyms have long been used as de facto re­cre­ation cen­ters in cer­tain parts of the city, par­tic­u­larly in the North­east. Else­where, it’s not un­usu­al to see a rec cen­ter and a chool on the same block. But in the North­east and oth­er new­er ec­tions, city lead­ers op­ted not to build rec cen­ter gyms, fig­ur­ing it more cost-ef­fect­ive to rely on the pub­lic schools in­stead.

“Now, you’re short [on gyms] be­cause the city didn’t build them. … The city got the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fit of not build­ing them and not hav­ing to main­tain them,” O’Neill said.

In re­turn, the school dis­trict has al­ways got­ten some be­ne­fits from the in­form­al ar­range­ment, too, such as free trash pickup, ac­cord­ing to the coun­cil­man. Yet, there has been no of­fi­cial ac­count­ing of the value of those ser­vices.

The school dis­trict hopes to save $1.8 mil­lion by char­ging for court time, said dis­trict spokes­man Fernando Gal­lard.

“It’s a fin­an­cial mo­tiv­a­tion. We are look­ing to have to bor­row three-hun­dred mil­lion dol­lars to meet our budget this year,” Gal­lard aid. “We have run out of places to cut without cut­ting in­to school udgets.”

Labor is the main cost as­so­ci­ated with keep­ing the gyms open after chool hours. The dis­trict must pay to have a staff mem­ber stick around un­til every­body else is gone. Without bas­ket­ball, clos­ing time would be 6 p.m. on weeknights, Gal­lard said. And the gyms would re­main closed on week­ends.

In an emer­gency cost-cut­ting move last Feb­ru­ary, the dis­trict im­ple­men­ted fees mid-sea­son, but the Nut­ter ad­min­is­tra­tion came up with $189,000 while the clubs were forced to con­sol­id­ate their activ­it­ies in­to few­er sites. As a res­ult, the clubs com­pleted the fi­nal weeks of their sea­son in 45 school gyms. Club of­fi­cials say they agreed to last year’s com­prom­ise as a tem­por­ary ar­range­ment and that neither the school dis­trict nor re­cre­ation of­fi­cials asked them or in­formed them about this year’s fees be­fore im­ple­ment­ing them.

“There’s been no com­mu­nic­a­tion at all,” said Vince Finn, ath­let­ic dir­ect­or at Cal­vary A.A.

• • •

As re­cently as last week, many club lead­ers were try­ing to fig­ure out how their or­gan­iz­a­tions would pay an­ti­cip­ated costs ran­ging from $7,000 to $20,000, if forced to pay the hourly rates on their usu­al ched­ules.

Now, they still face the dif­fi­cult de­cision of cut­ting back on kids’ court time or pay­ing more to main­tain a full sched­ule.

And with the coun­try mired in re­ces­sion, it’s not like any­one is rush­ing to off­set those costs. Years ago, the clubs could count on grant money from their loc­al elec­ted of­fi­cials, and per­haps on­sor­ships from busi­nesses, but not any­more.

“You can’t get any loc­al spon­sor­ships be­cause they’re hurt­ing, too,” Young said.

• • •

Leo Dig­nam, a deputy com­mis­sion­er for pro­grams with the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, said that the city’s 55 re­cre­ation cen­ter gyms will stay open longer and elim­in­ate some “free play” time in fa­vor of or­gan­ized bas­ket­ball teams and leagues.

Yet, youth clubs know that court time will be scarce in any case. So, they’re wait­ing to see if their chil­dren will have some­where to play.

“My 12-year-old knows something’s go­ing on be­cause he’s usu­ally rac­ti­cing by now,” said Glen Reed, the girls’ ath­let­ic dir­ect­or for Bustleton Bengals and a fath­er of three.

“They don’t really un­der­stand all the money is­sues, the polit­ic­al is­sues,” said Joe Grant, the Fox-Rok bas­ket­ball dir­ect­or, who has three kids in the pro­gram. “They only know that, hope­fully, when our re­gis­tra­tion is done, they’ll be play­ing.” •• 

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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