Arizona high schools forced to seek creative funding solutions for athletics

Coolidge High School is just one of many Arizona schools where fundraising is of upmost importance for its athletic programs. (Photo by Tyler Freader/Cronkite News)

Perry High School’s badminton team is good.

So good that the team finished as the runner-up in Arizona’s Division I state badminton finals last season.

But Perry’s success on the court doesn’t make the team or the Gilbert school immune to the funding challenges faced by high schools across Arizona.

“I would say that if you look at our calendar, someone, either athletics or activities, is doing a fundraiser almost at any given time throughout the year,” Perry High School Athletic Director Jennifer Burks said.

As one of its biggest fundraisers, the badminton team offers parents, students and fans a chance to face off with the team in an exhibition match. Those matches usually end in Perry dismantling its overmatched opponents.

“It’s actually pretty interesting because our badminton team is quite good,” Burks said. “So it’s very rare that you can get a point or two off of them.”

As the costs of high school athletics rise and education funding in Arizona continues to be squeezed, revenue streams like this have become critical to maintaining the viability of high school sports in the state.

Harold Slemmer, the executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association, says with high school athletics becoming increasingly complex, schools have had to look beyond their traditional athletic funding source, their maintenance and operation budgets, to pay for sports.

“Years ago the easy way to fund high school athletics was through the regular school maintenance and operation budget,” Slemmer said. “They set money aside to be able to outfit teams and uniforms and equipment that they might need, hire coaches.”

According to Slemmer, that resource is no longer sufficient on its own.

“In order for these schools to continue having good, well-developed programs, they look to outside funding,” Slemmer said. “As things evolve, there’s additional things you like to have kids have the opportunity to have and use, so you try to raise some extra money for that or try to find money in the budget. Costs of sports has gone up, whether it’s insurance costs, whether it’s liability issues that you’re dealing with, with equipment, with participation.”

Newer, more expensive equipment and facilities add to the financial burden athletics can place on a school, and outside funding has become a sizable piece of the athletic funding pie.

During the 2013-14 school year, the most recent year for which complete data is available, $105,385 that was spent on athletics at Coolidge Unified School District came from fundraising and ticket sales, according to information provided by the district.

That’s on top of the $349,125 the district drew for sports from its maintenance and operations budget, according to CUSD.

The amount of money allocated to athletics in CUSD’s maintenance and operations budget is unlikely to increase, given that the district has pursued various other cost-cutting measures, including a move to a four-day school week this fall, as part of an ongoing struggle with educational expenses in the state.

One way in which CUSD has dealt with the increasing challenges regarding school funding is initiating a pay-to-play system for all of its sports.

Pay-to-play, as the name suggests, is a system in which students are required to pay for their participation in extracurricular activities.

Pay-to-play systems exist in districts statewide, including Tempe Union School District, where Corona Del Sol High School uses it to help the school cover its athletic expenses.

“Students pay $50 per sport. This started about 10 years ago,” Corona Del Sol High School Athletic Director Dan Nero said in an email. “These fees help supplement the district maintenance and operation account and pay for athletic trainers, coaching stipends, transportation and many other parts of an overall district athletic budget.”

CUSD charges a district-wide fee of $50 per student per sport, a maximum of $150 per family, but won’t exclude students who can’t afford it.

“Most districts do this, Coolidge included. People who can’t afford to pay the fee, they don’t pay,” said Steve Adolph, CUSD’s assistant superintendent.

As to outside fundraisers, schools need to be careful about how many times they go that well, according to Coolidge head football coach Cayle Ferguson.

“You can’t over-fundraise, because then you’ll lose people,” Ferguson said. “You got to space your fundraisers out or it gets too much, and it gets too much on the kids, too, trying to fundraise all the time.”

Coolidge football holds six fundraisers over the course of a year, including a car wash, cookie dough sales and a “Bear Cards” sale, which features coupon-like deals for businesses around the area.

“As long as we push the (fundraisers) that we have and do really good with the ones we have, it covers us, takes care of everything,” Ferguson said.

Patrick McBride, athletic director at Coolidge High School, a school of about 650 students in Coolidge and one of two high schools in CUSD, said there are certain expensive items that the district will help with, especially when it comes to equipment.

“At the end of the year, I will always go to the business department for the things that are what we consider the big-ticket items there’s no way I can fundraise for or make enough money for,” McBride said.

“For example, to recondition helmets, you’re looking at $5,000 to $7,000 at a school our size,” McBride said. “And that’s not a want, that’s a need. You have to get them recertified every two years by law.”

“If you’re going to have football, you better buy good helmets,” Adolph said. “It doesn’t matter how much money you have, you’re going to buy good helmets because you can’t put our kids out there playing football and have them wearing second-class helmets.”

An idea McBride stressed to Coolidge coaches after starting as athletic director was the notion that being a high school coach wasn’t only about the game.

“When I evaluate or talk to each coach (I tell them) you’re running a program, you’re not just a coach. You’re running a program, you’re going to have to fundraise,” McBride said.

Nero said that even though financing extracurricular activities can be difficult, it is critical.

“I think the future is bright as long as we keep in mind that co-curricular athletics and activities are a huge part of our school community,” Nero wrote. “In my mind, you get no better ‘bang for your buck’ than what is offered in these programs to prepare well-rounded future leaders of our community!”

Adolph agreed with Nero, saying that what students get from the experience makes it all worthwhile.

“There are people who say, ‘Just get rid of those things.’ If all you did is come to school every day for your five or six classes and you (didn’t have) those other opportunities, I don’t think we’d be preparing students to be successful in their lives.” Adolph said.

“It’s expensive, but the day that we no longer offer extracurricular activities for kids, will be the day that I think we start doing a huge disservice to the kids.”