— 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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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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.”
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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 email@example.com