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Tournament travel woes underscore fiscal challenges Alaska schools face

It's not about fun and games

Posted: Tuesday, February 11, 2003

The weather-embattled ASAA/First National Bank Alaska State 4A Wrestling Champion-ships held Feb. 8 and 9 may have enlightened some Alaskans who read the numerous headlines describing the woes of travel-weary teams trying to get to Ketchikan.

The costly and time-consuming predicament underscores the fiscal challenges that Alaska schools face in offering interscholastic activities. It also illustrates the need to endow our youth with better funding circumstances in the future.

Years ago, the state of Alaska gave the Alaska School Activities Association about a half million dollars a year that was used to reimburse schools for the high cost of traveling to state tournaments. Funding ceased in 1986, leaving schools no option but to cover the costs or pass them on to students and their families.

Thankfully Alaska Airlines works with ASAA and schools to provide the most cost-effective air travel possible, but it's still expensive.

As the former principal of Haines High School, I vividly remember that it cost $20,000 to get our girls team to Anchorage to compete in the state basketball tournament -- and that was in 1985. We do know that it cost Mat-Su borough teams a whopping $13,000 for travel to Ketchikan this year.

According to an informal survey of our 200 member schools statewide, it can cost a small school $50,000 each year to support just one activity, such as basketball. And depending on the activity, it can cost a student $500 to cover participation fees and travel-related expenses. Sometimes far more.

Is the cost worth it?

Parents, schools and students will tell you it is. Kids who participate just turn out to be better adults. They have higher GPAs, better school attendance and a compelling correlation with post-high school success.

Moreover, as America tries to address the nation's growing obesity epidemic, interscholastic athletics shine as a proven way to instill healthy living habits in our youth.

Even so, many schools are struggling to fund interscholastic activity programs in the face of looming budget cuts. Some schools are forced to establish or increase participation fees. That's bad news. National statistics show that when participation fees are imposed, participation drops by 25 percent to 30 percent. This means kids who stand to benefit the most from participation cannot afford to do so.

Currently, ASAA sanctions, oversees and supports 24 interscholastic athletic, academic and fine art activities -- from classic sports, to music, art, debate and language programs. More than 20,000 high school students participate in one or more of these activities.

ASAA wants to ensure activities are affordable for every Alaskan high school student. And, we want to secure the survival of quality interscholastic activities in Alaska's schools.

To that end, ASAA established the Alaska Endowment for Youth Activities last year. Our ambitious, but reachable, goal is to save enough money over the next 10 years, so that we can:

a) Reduce the daunting costs to schools participating in state championship events, including reimbursement for the cost of travel and elimination of student participation fees; and

b) Ensure the viability of ASAA as the long-standing champion for school activities. We are counting on individual generosity and corporate

philanthropy to reach this goal.

Our investment in providing accessible, affordable interscholastic activities will pay societal dividends that make the cost of participation pale in comparison.

For example, statistics prove that participation in school activities reduces the risk of teen pregnancy and can turn at-risk teens in a positive direction.

Beyond these societal issues, activities help our young people to mature into adults who feel empowered to live up to their potential, both in home life and in the work arena.

If promoting affordable activities translates to savings by reducing criminal behavior, teen pregnancy, poor health habits and a poor work ethic, how can we afford not to invest?

Gary Matthews is the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, a non-profit statewide organization established in 1956 to direct, develop and support interscholastic athletic, academic and fine-art activities. Readers interested in ASAA, activity programs and/or the endowment, can call ASAA at (907) 563-3723, or visit its Web site at www.asaa.org.



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