By Teresa Thomas
Medford athletes won't have to pay to play next year if the Medford School Board agrees to dip into the district's reserves.
In one of its final actions before approving a recommended budget Tuesday, the district Budget Committee voted to eliminate athletic participation fees, which were expected to total about $220,000 in 2014-15.
The board adopted participation fees in April 2004 as an alternative to cutting teams and activities. High school athletes pay $150 per sport with a $300 cap, while middle school athletes pay $75 per sport.
The Budget Committee is recommending that the fees be waived and that the district transfer money from its contingency fund to its athletic fund to offset the cost of equipment, travel, referees, umpires and sports-related supplies.
Between 2011 and 2013, participation fees yielded about $459,000 in revenue for secondary athletic programs and are projected to yield an additional $220,000 this year, assuming everyone pays.
When he joined the Budget Committee last year, Jim Norris, the Rogue Valley Country Club's general manager, said he was "personally offended" to learn that district students had to pay a fee to play sports.
"Fundamentally, I don't feel it's right that we charge students to participate in athletics through schools," he said. "I think it creates some inequities. My fear is that a student doesn't participate in a sport because he can't afford the fee or doesn't want to ask his family for the money or doesn't want to go to an administrator and say, I want to play but can't afford it.' "
Norris presented his concerns to the committee last year, but no formal action was taken as the district was already working with a budget deficit. But this year, with a proposed balanced budget and $10.4 million in reserves, Norris decided the time was right and initiated the motion to remove the participation fees.
The public will be allowed to comment on the committee's proposed budget at a June 2 board meeting, and the board will vote on whether to adopt it at a June 16 meeting.
Norris said Thursday that he felt sure the board would adopt the amended budget because the committee, which includes all seven board members, had approved it.
South Medford High School Athletic Director Dennis Murphy said he was surprised the district would want to cut the participation fees just 10 years after implementing them.
"What happens a year or two down the road when we find out that we can't afford it and have to reinstate the participation fee?" he asked. "It makes more sense to reduce it."
Each of the high schools collects about $80,000 a year in participation fees, which is nearly half of their $166,000 athletic budgets, Murphy said.
"Do I think (eliminating the fee) is a nice gesture? Absolutely," he said. "Will it lessen the hardship on families? Absolutely. But I think it's important for people realize that we've never prohibited kids from playing because they couldn't cover the participation fee."
North Principal Ron Beick said there was no way of knowing how many students choose not to pursue a sport because there's a price tag attached.
Last year, 739 South High School students, between 700 and 750 North High students, 416 McLoughlin Middle School students and 571 Hedrick Middle School students participated in at least one sport. About a third of the high school athletes had a portion of the cost waived, and about 140 middle school athletes received a full or partial fee reduction.
Norris said the added cost is worth it.
"If we can increase the connection between the school and student, we might be able to increase the graduation rate," Norris said. "And athletics does that."