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Parents Shell Out More for Sports

Pleasanton schools and other area school districts are cutting back, asking parents to contribute more. But they walk a razor's edge at times--and the ACLU might be watching.

Pleasanton and other area school sports programs are being hit by severe funding shortfalls and some have threatened to scale back everything from coaches to administration.

To fill those funding gaps, Pleasanton and the San Ramon Valley school districts are asking parents to cough up more cash.

The Pleasanton Unified School District recently announced on the Foothill High School website that it's "no longer able to fund coaching stipends or the position of athletic director" at either Foothill or Amador high schools. Parents will now foot the bill for those positions. The California High School's website, for example, included an appeal to parents to contribute or "sports at California High School cannot be offered."

Just last year, Pleasanton's school district formalized a policy of asking for voluntary contributions to keep sports programs afloat-- something Myla Grasso, district spokesperson, called the "Fair Share."

"Fair Share" contributions go towards coaching stipends, athletic director positions, "hardship" support and transportation.

The fees come as the Pleasanton district has seen a sharp drop in state funding--$8 million this year and $11 million the previous year, forcing local schools and parents to fill the gaps for sports programs, Grasso said.

Both Amador and Foothill worked together to develop the cost formula and the district approved it, Grasso said.

Foothill now asks parents to contribute $350 per student to play football while the fee at Amador is around $400. Amador previously made sports package available for parents to buy through its web store.

Kathy O'Neill, who has a sophomore daughter and a senior son at Foothill High School, said she used to pay just $150 per child before the fair share was implemented last year. She said that if parents are being asked to pay more, then they should also have more say in the program. 

But, as the mother of a volleyball and basketball player, she said while the fees can be frustrating, she's willing to pay.

"I'd rather pay more to have the program than not having them at all," she said. 

April Kemp, a mother of an incoming freshman at Amador Valley who will be playing football, said she was surprised by the how high the fees were.

"It definitely caught me off-guard," she said. "But it's important for kids to play ... so you have to find a way to make it happen."

Schools are also relying more on parent group contributions, such as booster clubs, to help pay for sports-related items outside of personnel compensation. 

In the last three years at Foothill High School, the boosters club gave $570,000 for items such as equipment, uniforms, referee fees and sports facility improvements. (Boosters money in Pleasanton Unified is separate from the "fair-share" contribution).

At San Ramon Valley's Dougherty Valley High School, 80 percent of the funding for sports such as football or waterpolo now comes from private sources such as booster associations and voluntary "contributions" or "fees"--sometimes called pay-to-play fees.

But there's a problem with these types of fees. According to the American Civil Liberties Union recently, many parents don't know that the fees are not mandatory. While it's perfectly legal to ask for money, schools cannot demand it or make it a precondition to playing sports.

The ACLU recently fired off a warning letter to the San Diego Unified School District stating that they were "concerned that San Diego schools are not complying with California's laws requiring a free public education" because a San Diego Grand Jury found some schools charged fees for uniforms or "spirit packs" containing sports uniforms.

The state Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that mandatory fees for "extracurricular" activities violate the state constitutional guarantee to a free public education. Sports, the court found, are an essential part of education—even if it is extracurricular—because it encourages community involvement and instructs students in the democratic process.

But what schools can and cannot charge for can be confusing. Charging some fees, say for transportation, food or field trips, is legal. But charging for locks, uniforms, instruments or supplies aren't.  Asking parents to pay for sports packages or to voluntarily contribute is legal if schools make it clear that they are voluntary and do not ban athletes who do not pay.

Earlier this week  Amador's web store did not state that the fees are optional. (The site is not currently live, and Patch is trying to find out why.)

Meanwhile, the ACLU is on the hunt for districts not complying with the ruling. Late last week, they issued a statement that they would examine all school districts again—and all sports contributions--putting pay to play again on their front burner.

The ACLU's warning letter to San Diego cited fees that are much higher than at local schools. Cheer members at Clairemont High pay $1,097 a year, with extra costs for additional equipment and competition uniforms; $350 at Crawford High plus approximately $50 for cheer camp; Serra High cheerleaders pay $455 to $485 for uniforms, $335 for summer cheer camp, $500 for coaches' donations, plus an additional $395 for optional uniform items.

But the gist of the ACLU's warning to the San Diego district and all California school districts is that it's illegal for schools to charge for uniforms and supplies for after school "extracurricular" sports, such as football or basketball.

"Quite honestly, it's not the way we want to do business," said San Ramon Valley School District spokesperson Terry Koehne. "But it's a reality in California. And it's a shame that that's what we've come to."

Mark McCoy, vice principal at Foothill High, explained that schools around the I-680 corridor have all implemented  some version of the fair share fee. In the case of Foothill and Amador, the district and the schools sat down and "crunched the numbers," he said, trying to keep fees essentially the same.

The schools scrambled to cover budgets a few years ago, McCoy said, starting with transportation fees, but those morphed into fair-share fees just recently for Foothill and Amador.

"We started with asking parents with kids in sports where it made sense to drive their own student," he said. "But that wasn't enough. The fees are necessary to keep certain positions funded." 

Meanwhile, the district maintains it tries to be fair when it comes to sports fees and that they do remain voluntary.

"We have attempted to keep our sports programs as intact as possible to provide access for all students," Grasso said.

McCoy said parents are informed of the fees through large meetings at the beginning of each season, weekly bulletins and the schools' websites. 

"There does not appear to be any relief to the  current budget situation in the near future. As a result we will continue to use the Fair Share model as a vehicle to provide kids the opportunity to participate in extra-curricular athletics," he said. "We are fortunate that our parent community has been very supportive of the voluntary program."

[Editor's Note: The Amador web store listings for sports packages was up earlier this week, but has since been pulled. We will update this story when we have further information as to whether it was inactivated due to concerns about its legality.]

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