Niagara Gazette

October 9, 2012

CONFER: Cut school sports -- for financial reasons

By Bob Confer
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — The past few years have been almost as difficult for local governments as it has for the private sector.

Unlike state and federal governments — which still seem addicted to their spend-heavy ways despite the short-term and long-term financial implications – municipalities and school districts have had a dose of fiscal reality that once was found only in the business world and in peoples’ homes. They have had to make some very difficult and unpopular cuts and their residents find themselves doing without in order to balance budgets or keep spending increases at a minimum.

Things really aren’t getting any better; their sources of revenue remain stressed. Most businesses are still depressed and definitely hesitant about future growth (the unemployment rate is 8.8 percent in NY). State and local sales tax revenues are a combined $300 million below projections across the state. New federal standards have changed the way educational funding is acquired (“Race to the Top”). The state’s population continues to both decrease and age (upstate’s median age rose by nearly seven years in the period of 1990 to 2010). Foreclosures are still at epidemic levels across the Empire State (140,000 homes are currently seriously delinquent).

Because of those factors, and no real relief in sight, local governments will have to get even more creative in the coming months and years. What was thought to be hard decisions in recent years will look almost pedestrian to what will have to happen in 2013, 2014, and beyond.

Nothing is out of question and everything is fair game. Even the most sacrosanct of all publically-funded programs should be considered for the chopping block. First and foremost should be high school athletics.

When it comes to budgeting at your workplace and with your household finances, every dollar — no, every cent — matters. That same belief should hold true with school budgets. Just because something seems like such a small piece of the puzzle doesn’t necessarily make it so. It’s an accumulation of those small pieces that contribute to the overall organization. When you expand on the statistics, the reality of that is evident.

Consider that sports often count for less than 1 percent of total spending in local school districts. At Royalton-Hartland, it’s 0.93 percent and at Williamsville it’s 0.91 percent. Those with only a passing interest in budget details will say it’s “only 1 percent” and, therefore, that small investment should be made. But, what is “only 1 percent” in terms of dollars?

At Roy-Hart, it’s $206,000. Big money. At the far larger Williamsville school district it’s a jaw-dropping $1.5 million.

Let’s look at that impact in two ways. First, what will 1 percent buy the district? If the schools had to make a 1 percent cut and weigh academics versus athletics and athletics lost out, Roy-Hart would save the jobs of 4 teachers while Williamsville would save the jobs of 28 teachers (for the sake of this analysis I am using a $53,000 median wage which is between a starting point of $39,000 and a 25-year average of $67,000). Secondly, what would 1 percent save you?

Were 1 percent cut and allowed to go back into the economy, every man, woman and child in Roy-Hart would have an extra $23 per year. Williamsville residents would have $20 each to spend.

The quick retort from parents who have kids in school sports will be that spending should increase by 1 percent to make sure we have the sports. But, they must realize that this percentage point is one of just many; costs are going up for everything in this world (the inflation rate for 2012 is around 2 precent) and schools must also fund true necessities – like labor, supplies, utilities and facilities. Then, there’s the matter of the state’s 2 percent tax cap to contend with, which inhibits schools from spending as madly as they used to (although 2 percent every year is still maddening).

It’s also a fact that we have a graying population who live on fixed incomes (Social Security and small pensions) and can ill afford annual increases in school taxes of any size.

Then there’s the Big Picture: New Yorkers already spend more on public education than anyone else, $18,618, which is 75% more than the national average and the driver behind our unconscionable property taxes (I figure that, after rate increases, I will be paying more than $300,000 on school taxes over my lifetime for my rural home and 5 acres).

But enough about the financial aspects of sports. Next week we’ll focus on the philosophical side of school sports — Why public funding of athletics is inherently wrong and who should assume responsibility for footing the bill.

Bob Confer is a Gasport resident and vice president of Confer Plastics Inc. in North Tonawanda. Email him at bobconfer@juno.com.