Several statewide educational associations and the statewide activities association recently approved resolutions asking the state Legislature to come up with separate and additional funding for student activities.
Gary Matthews, the executive director of the Alaska School Activities Association, said activities across the state are becoming more and more endangered due to tight school district budgets.
"As districts are required to spend more and more money so students can meet standards on exams and as fixed costs continue to rise, there's less and less money for activities programs," Matthews said.
Matthews and others supporting separate and additional funding would like to change the current system, which has money for education and activities coming from the same budget. School districts are forced to choose between cutting activities or cutting money for the classroom.
Although the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has not taken an official position on the matter, Todd Syverson, the district's assistant superintendent, said forcing school districts to decide between activities and classroom instruction is a bad idea.
"What it's been for so long has been like comparing apples and oranges," Syverson said. "Do you fund the teacher in the classroom, or do you fund the football coach? It doesn't make sense pitting those two against each other."
ASAA's board unanimously approved a resolution requesting separate and additional funding for activities on Oct. 3. Since then, both the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals and the Alaska Association of Student Governments have approved similar resolutions.
The resolution also was discussed by the Alaska Association of School Administrators and is being discussed by the Association of Alaska School Boards, which right now is meeting in Anchorage. Matthews said he also is going to send information to other state educational groups.
He said in the next few weeks he will organize a committee of six to eight people from around the state to co-write a proposal that can be submitted to the Legislature.
"We're hoping we can find somebody who's willing to sponsor it," Matthews said. "The chances of that are increasing as these educational groups support it.
"All we have is an idea. We don't have anything down on paper yet."
Problem hits close to home
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District is an example of an activities budget in decline. Last year, the activities budget was set to be cut to $1.1 million, down from the excess of $3 million per year that activities in the district received in the 1980s.
At the last minute, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly stepped in last year and funneled this year's activities budget $250,000 through a district technology program.
Without that $250,000, participation fees would have been increased by 50 percent at the high schools and middle schools, stipends would have been eliminated for elementary programs, money for travel to state events would have been eliminated and borough tournaments would have been eliminated.
Anchorage, by far the largest population center in the state, is having similar problems. Last year, high school swimming, hockey and gymnastics were set to be cut, but instead the Anchorage School Board voted to increase participation fees from $100 to $175 per sport.
The Anchorage Daily News reported this week that swimming, hockey and gymnastics are on a preliminary cut list on one of the citizen budget review committees of acting Superintendent Carol Comeau. This raises the prospect that Saturday's state swimming and diving championships could have been the last for Anchorage schools.
Show me the money
Last year, a Student Activities Task Force was formed by Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson to look into how to deal with dwindling activities dollars.
It is members of that task force that got the ball rolling on the idea of separate and additional funding of activities by bringing the idea to ASAA's fall meeting in October.
At a Nov. 2 meeting, the task force discussed some of the obstacles to getting separate and additional funding for activities.
One of the first to surface was getting the Legislature to find additional money for activities. Dave Spence, a task force member and the executive secretary of the Kenai Peninsula Schools Activities Association, said the intent is not to divvy up the educational pie differently. The intent is to get a separate funding formula for activities
"Where's this money coming from?" said Seward Junior-Senior High School Principal Malcolm Fleming, a task force member. "Until that is addressed, there's really a problem with this.
"You want to give us more money for activities? Great. Show me the money."
Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, said he doesn't think the Legislature will give separate and additional funding to activities because it has more important things to deal with in the area of education.
He said issues the Legislature must address are increasing the foundation formula for the funding of education and doing more for vocational education at both the secondary school and university levels.
"I see it as a matter of priority," Torgerson said. "We're spending $717 million on education now, and we're not going to put more money into the classroom so we can start funding sports? I don't see that happening."
Torgerson said it's not the case that he doesn't support activities. He has called ASAA and told them he would be willing to serve on the board of Alaska Endowment for Youth Activities, Inc. This nonprofit corporation will try to create financial stability for ASAA and help schools pay for travel to state activities.
District 9 Representative-elect Mike Chenault served on the Student Activities Task Force because he is a school board member, although he said he will resign from the school board before taking office in January.
Chenault said the idea of separate and additional funding needs to be considered.
"I don't know if it's feasible," said Chenault, who was on the school board for one year. "I would at least like to look at it and see if we can find the funding for it.
"There are all kinds of innovative things out there that could help the schools, and we need to look at them."
Sylvia Reynolds, the Soldotna High School principal who brought the activities resolution to the Alaska Association of Secondary School Principals, said the Legislature can find the money if it wants to.
"This state has tremendous resources," Reynolds said. "There should be no reason we shouldn't be able to fund education at the level it should be funded at.
"It should be embarrassing that this state can't fully fund education."
A couple of things could potentially work in favor of separate and additional funding for activities. First, those involved in activities are not afraid to make themselves heard.
"Sports people are vocal people," Chenault said. "Those parents are concerned about the education of their children, and they're also deeply concerned about the sports their children play."
Darroll Hargraves, the executive director of the Alaska Council of School Administrators, said the recently completed election should help education. The Alaska Council of School Administrators is made up of elementary and secondary school principals, district superintendents and school business officials.
"We know across the state candidates for legislative office are putting education as a top priority," Hargraves said. "Voters seem to be making that demand on candidates."
Idea faces other hurdles
The task force discussed a number of other obstacles that could get in the way of separate and additional funding for activities.
Patrick Hickey, a task force member and the school district superintendent in charge of operations and business management, said the perception people have of activities needs to be changed.
"We're dealing with people who remember sports as extracurricular activities -- something outside the scope of the curriculum and basic educational responsibility," Hickey said. "We need to get people to see activities as cocurricular, an important part of what schools are doing today.
"Then we can talk about how to fund it."
More and more, activities are being linked with success in school and life.
For example, Education Week recently reported on a study following over 1,000 students starting in sixth grade. The study found activities had a positive influence on those students.
The Michigan Study of Adolescent Life Transitions started following the sixth-graders in 1983. It found activities are linked to better grades, lower rates of truancy, stronger feelings of attachment to a school and higher rates of college attainment.
Matthews said if activities budgets continue to shrink, schools could lose benefits that activities provide. Around the state, the cases are increasing where teams are run on money generated by sources other than the school district. Football in Juneau and baseball and softball in Anchorage are a few examples.
"When the money is coming from outside, and not within the schools, that opens the door to potential abuses," Matthews said.
Another problem separate and additional funding will face has been brought up continually by Jeff Sinz, a task force member and the borough finance director. Sinz said he doesn't like the idea because of the loss of local control.
Sinz fears the Legislature could set up a separate funding program, then choose not to fund it one year and leave schools across the state in a difficult spot.
Some involved with education in the state already aren't supporting separate and additional funding for activities due to the issue of local control.
Don Evans, the chief executive officer for Pelican City Schools in Southeast, said activities has been cut down to a basic, minimum service in his schools. However, so have a lot of other important educational programs.
"This would take away local control from the school board," Evans said. "The school board should be able to decide if they want more funds for activities.
"The school board best knows what the needs are. That's why they are elected. The state Legislature shouldn't be able to give us money, then tell us we have to spend it on activities."
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