Courting success

— Com­munity sports groups in the North­east are cop­ing with a short­age of play­ing space and a sur­plus of user fees the old-fash­ioned way: They’re im­pro­vising.

(left to right) Chris­toph­er Mar­tino, 8, Gregory Golfe, 9, and Samaj Rhodes, 7, prac­tice their bas­ket­ball skills as part of the May­fair Mon­archs at Dis­ston Re­cre­ation Cen­ter, Decem­ber 28, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

Like many youth sports vo­lun­teers in the North­east, Joe Giedemann is gen­er­ous with his time and en­ergy. Even so, he’s as stingy as Scrooge with some par­tic­u­larly pre­cious in­form­a­tion about the Bustleton Bengals’ pro­gram.

He has to be, con­sid­er­ing the high stakes sur­round­ing kids’ bas­ket­ball these days.

After the School Dis­trict of Phil­adelphia im­ple­men­ted new gym­nas­i­um rent­al fees last fall, Giedemann and oth­er youth or­gan­iz­a­tion lead­ers throughout the city were left scram­bling to find court time at al­tern­ate sites without break­ing the bank. Most seem to have suc­ceeded, based on an in­form­al sur­vey of North­east Philly youth group of­fi­cials.

For ex­ample, Giedemann, who is the boys’ ath­let­ic dir­ect­or for the non-profit Bengals, found a private gym that charges a lot less than the school dis­trict does. To this day, he re­fuses to dis­close the loc­a­tion, just in case an­oth­er youth group might swoop in and grab some of the Bengals’ coveted court time.

Pay­ing the $57 to $72 per hour de­man­ded by the school dis­trict was nev­er a vi­able op­tion in Giedemann’s mind.

“I re­fuse to pay the city for any gym time,” he said with the bas­ket­ball sea­son hit­ting full swing this month.

The North­east Times first re­por­ted about the new school gym fees on Oct. 24 as youth clubs and leagues were in the midst of their an­nu­al play­er re­gis­tra­tion peri­ods.

Tra­di­tion­ally, more than 100 of the city’s pub­lic school gyms have been avail­able to those groups free of charge on weeknights un­til about 10 p.m. and all day on Sat­urdays. But last fall, the cash-strapped school dis­trict elim­in­ated free play to save $1.8 mil­lion in staff­ing costs dur­ing the three-month bas­ket­ball sea­son. Even with the re­l­at­ively mod­est sav­ings, the dis­trict still faces a pro­jec­ted $1.3 bil­lion budget de­fi­cit over the next five years.

• • •

Ac­cord­ing to Leo Dig­nam, the deputy com­mis­sion­er of pro­gram­ming for the city’s De­part­ment of Parks and Re­cre­ation, the new fee struc­ture was as much about ef­fi­ciency as dol­lars and cents. The fees and re­stric­ted gym avail­ab­il­ity force all groups to sched­ule their court times more ju­di­ciously. In the past, groups of­ten re­served more time than they really needed or used, he said.

“Ob­vi­ously when you have something for so long that’s un­lim­ited, groups start to take ad­vant­age of it,” Dig­nam said. “We had to ser­i­ously sit down and take a look at what was go­ing on. A lot of schools wer­en’t be­ing used full-time.”

The tim­ing of it all didn’t sit well with the youth groups, who claim they learned of the new fees in early Oc­to­ber only after con­tact­ing their loc­al re­cre­ation lead­ers to re­serve court times for the up­com­ing sea­son. The city’s re­cre­ation lead­ers act as book­ing agents for school gyms in a spe­cial ar­range­ment with the school dis­trict.

Youth group of­fi­cials ini­tially feared they’d end up on the hook for tens of thou­sands of dol­lars in un­budgeted ex­penses if forced to pay for their usu­al time slots in the schools.

In an 11th-hour par­tial re­prieve, May­or Mi­chael Nut­ter on Oct. 23 com­mit­ted $338,000 in city fund­ing to book ad­di­tion­al weeknight and Sat­urday gym time at about 25 schools. But that still left some 80 schools avail­able only at a premi­um.

Some neigh­bor­hoods were hit harder than oth­ers.

“The mere fact that the North­east is so large and we have a lot of kids, it has been af­fected in a lar­ger way than any oth­er area [of the city],” said Dig­nam, a Ta­cony nat­ive.

Groups both large and small have felt some im­pact. 

• • •

About 400 boys and girls, some as young as 4, play for the Bengals on about 30 in-house and travel teams. Thanks largely to Giedemann’s re­source­ful­ness, along with some ex­tra help from Parks and Rec, the Bengals have been able to main­tain their level of youth pro­gram­ming without passing any new ex­penses onto mem­ber fam­il­ies.

Un­like some area groups, the Bengals do not own a gym, nor do they have a city-owned re­cre­ation cen­ter gym­nas­i­um to call home. In pre­vi­ous years, they prac­ticed and played home games at two pub­lic schools, Anne Frank Ele­ment­ary and Baldi Middle.

The Bengals still use both schools for free, al­beit on re­duced sched­ules. Plus, they have the private gym two nights per week.

As a spe­cial con­sid­er­a­tion to the group, Dig­nam’s of­fice ar­ranged for Baldi to re­main open for an ex­tra hour un­til 8:30 on weeknights. That al­lows the Bengals to con­duct two prac­tice ses­sions each night, rather than one.

“It gets us a chance to get two teams in there,” Giedemann said. “[Each ses­sion] is re­duced, but they’re still get­ting an hour of prac­tice.”

The city tried to make sim­il­ar al­low­ances for oth­er youth groups de­pend­ing on their needs.

“We tried to ac­com­mod­ate every­body,” Dig­nam said. 

In Fox Chase, the Fox-Rok Ath­let­ic As­so­ci­ation shares the neigh­bor­hood re­cre­ation cen­ter with a soc­cer club. So Dig­nam’s of­fice ad­ded the nearby Fox Chase School to the list of city-sub­sid­ized gyms. Fox-Rock serves about 320 youths ages 5 to 18.

The Somer­ton Youth Or­gan­iz­a­tion, which serves about 450 youths ages 5 to 16, has its own gym­nas­i­um, but it needed and got an ex­tra hour for its weeknight ses­sions at Comly Ele­ment­ary and Wash­ing­ton High, al­though weeknights at Loes­che Ele­ment­ary re­main on a strict 7:30 p.m. time lim­it.

One un­re­solved snag with the new ar­range­ment is that Somer­ton’s young­est play­ers are now forced to play on reg­u­la­tion-size courts at Wash­ing­ton High on Sat­urdays, rather than the smal­ler ele­ment­ary school courts.

• • •

Oth­er North­east groups such as the Lans­ing Knights and Crispin Gar­dens face the same chal­lenge as Bustleton — they don’t have a private gym or re­cre­ation cen­ter to use. Lans­ing is mak­ing do with its al­lot­ted court time in the schools, while Crispin is one of the few groups pay­ing for ex­tra court time, ac­cord­ing to Dig­nam.

“There are a hand­ful around the city [who pay],” he said. “As far as I know, there’s only one in the North­east.”

Crispin Gar­dens rents Pol­lock Ele­ment­ary School two nights per week for one hour each night. Club of­fi­cials did not re­turn tele­phone calls from the Times re­quest­ing com­ment.

The May­fair Mon­archs, with 60 to 70 play­ers, may be one of the smal­lest youth groups in the area. Ac­cord­ing to board mem­ber Dave Bau­mann, their six boys teams and one or two girls teams will play without a home gym this winter be­cause of the changes.

“We’re gypsies,” Bau­mann said. “We prac­tice at Dis­ston Rec Cen­ter on Thursday and Fri­day and at Mee­han (Middle School) on Tues­day. Our 12 (year-olds), 14s and 16s will have no home games. Tra­di­tion­ally, we’ve used school courts, but we can’t do that.”

The young­er teams will be able to use Dis­ston for home games, but the small gym has little room for spec­tat­ors, which presents a se­cur­ity con­cern.

“Nor­mally, you get a lot of par­ents. They’ll be lit­er­ally stand­ing on the side­lines,” Bau­mann said. “If one kid bumps in­to an­oth­er [on the court], par­ents are right on top of it. It’s not an ideal cir­cum­stance.”

• • •

From the city’s per­spect­ive, all the re­shuff­ling has had some pos­it­ive, per­haps unanti­cip­ated out­comes. Spe­cific­ally, it’s giv­en city-sponsored leagues a shot in the arm.

In the North­east, youth clubs have com­peted for dec­ades in sev­er­al in­de­pend­ent leagues such as the Pea­nut League, the North­east Sub­urb­an Ath­let­ic Con­fer­ence (NESAC) and the North­east Girls Inter-Club Bas­ket­ball League or “Lin­coln League,” in ad­di­tion to the city-sponsored “rec” leagues.

In re­cent years, the rec leagues had been in de­cline in the North­east. The city dropped its girls pro­gram last year and re­gistered just 24 boys teams. This year, however, 45 boys teams signed up, while the city signed on as the primary spon­sor of the Lin­coln League, which got its nick­name from its long­time host site, Lin­coln High.

Ray Ca­sey, the Lin­coln League com­mis­sion­er, said that the mer­ger made sense to the league be­cause it af­fords them with bet­ter ac­cess to gym­nas­i­ums and de­frays ad­min­is­trat­ive costs. The same people are still run­ning the show, he in­sists.

“We still have su­per­vi­sion over our league,” Ca­sey said. “But they co­ordin­ate with us now.”

The mer­ger was a ma­jor coup for the Parks and Rec de­part­ment.

“Last year, we did not have a girls league, al­though girls are wel­come to play in any of our leagues,” Dig­nam said. “Now, the girls league at Lin­coln, which is sixty-two teams strong, is sponsored by Parks and Rec.”

Dig­nam at­trib­utes the near-doub­ling of the boys con­tin­gent to bet­ter or­gan­iz­a­tions and com­mu­nic­a­tion between city of­fi­cials and the in­de­pend­ent youth clubs. Some youth group lead­ers told the Times they were con­cerned that NESAC lost a lot of gym time due to the new school fees and time re­stric­tions. A NESAC board mem­ber did not re­turn calls re­quest­ing com­ment.

Youth or­gan­iz­a­tion of­fi­cials hope that the com­mu­nic­a­tion con­tin­ues bey­ond the end of the cur­rent sea­son so they don’t find them­selves in the same situ­ation next fall, won­der­ing if their kids will have places to play and where.

“I think we learned our les­son,” Dig­nam said. “They really need to know soon­er.” ••

Re­port­er Wil­li­am Kenny can be reached at 215-354-3031 or

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