— 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 shouldn’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," said 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 starting 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.
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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 schools. 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.”
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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 school on the same block. But in the Northeast and other newer sections, 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 said. “We have run out of places to cut without cutting into school budgets.”
Labor is the main cost associated with keeping the gyms open after school 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.
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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 schedules.
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 sponsorships from businesses, but not anymore.
“You can’t get any local sponsorships because they’re hurting, too,” Young said.
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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 practicing 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.” ••