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Bellingham schools to do away with pay-to-play sports fees this fall

Squalicum High School’s Kendra Steele, left, and Bellingham’s Brooke Baker go for a header at the same time on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015 at Civic Stadium in Bellingham. Parents of middle and high school students in Bellingham will no longer have to pay fees for their children to play sports.
Squalicum High School’s Kendra Steele, left, and Bellingham’s Brooke Baker go for a header at the same time on Saturday, Oct. 31, 2015 at Civic Stadium in Bellingham. Parents of middle and high school students in Bellingham will no longer have to pay fees for their children to play sports. eabell@bhamherald.com

Parents of middle school and high school students here will no longer have to pay fees for their children to play sports, the district announced this week.

Officials said they hoped the decision to eliminate the “pay-to-play” fee would please the family pocketbooks of nearly 5,000 middle and high school students who participate in athletics, and make those activities more accessible to students whose families can’t afford the fees in the first place.

The fees have been in place since just after the recession, said Superintendent Greg Baker, and have brought in “hundreds of thousands of dollars” to cover items such as equipment, game worker fees, tournament and post-season expenses.

They’ve also been reduced over the years, having been as high as $155 at one point. For the past two years, high school athletes had to pay $80 for the first sport, with another, lower fee for each additional sport, said Steve Clarke, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning. Middle school athletes paid $40 for the first sport.

These fees came on top of other costs to parents for items such as uniforms and some travel expenses. Every student athlete is also required to have an Associated Student Body ID card, which costs $40. The revenue from the cards helps cover costs for athletics and activities for the school that issues them.

Those costs will remain.

A lot of times you have a lot of kids who’ve never played the sport before but are interested. Having that fee can be a definite hindrance on whether they decide to or not.

Kim Kirk, Sehome High School girl’s basketball coach

Families who qualified for free and reduced meals were also eligible for lower pay-to-play fees, and in some cases they could have the fees waived all together. Still, they were a barrier for some students.

“The hard thing was, we had kids who wanted to participate and families had to decide they just couldn’t participate. That’s painful,” Clarke said, adding that students who participate in sports or other activities are more likely to be successful in school. “I think we’re doing the right thing now.”

Getting rid of the fees has long been part of the district’s Project Free Education, a program started in 2011 that aims to find ways within the district’s budget to cover various costs long paid for by parents. The program has helped eliminate many of them, including certain course fees for middle and high school students, and school supplies in all schools.

“I hear from families and kids all the time that are constantly getting bombarded for fees for a class or for sports, and we’re trying to eliminate those,” he said. “This isn’t something new; this is just the next step to reduce those costs.”

Though the state Legislature has yet to meet a state Supreme Court mandate to fund school districts entirely, the state has provided some funding, Baker said. That, along with the money from recently passed levies, has freed up some of the district’s own funding to cover those fees.

“Basically, it’s just prioritizing our resources,” Baker said. “There are still a whole bunch of fees left, but it’s taken a small bite out of the huge elephant each year.”

The fee’s elimination is a welcome change for Kim Kirk, girl’s basketball coach at Sehome High School. Kirk has been involved in girl’s basketball at Sehome for the past 20 years, including the last nine as head coach.

Though it’s hard to say for sure, Kirk said she thinks the fees contributed to a shortage of players in past years, including one year when the school couldn’t recruit enough players for a C Team.

The fees also kept students from trying new things, she added.

“A lot of times you have a lot of kids who’ve never played the sport before but are interested,” she said. “Having that fee can be a definite hindrance on whether they decide to or not.”

Cara Buckingham said the fees have never been a barrier for her two sons, Aspen, a Bellingham High School sophomore who plays, tennis, basketball and soccer, and Aiden, a seventh-grader who plans to play soccer and basketball this year at Whatcom Middle School.

But she said the real benefit is for families who couldn’t afford to let their children play sports.

“What I love about what the district is doing is it’s creating more equity for all families, especially families that do have to think twice about where they’re putting their dollars,” Buckingham said. “I think it’s really great that the school district moved forward with this and was able to keep cost out of the equation.”

Kyle Mittan: 360-756-2803, @KyleMittan

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