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Pay to Play: Duluth's athletic participation fees near state's highest

In a perfect world, Duluth Denfeld athletic director Tom Pearson wouldn't have to charge a dime for students' athletic participation. "I'd like to see all of our sports free in a public education, but that's not the landscape that we're in," Pear...

Participation fees
News Tribune graphic

In a perfect world, Duluth Denfeld athletic director Tom Pearson wouldn’t have to charge a dime for students’ athletic participation.
“I’d like to see all of our sports free in a public education, but that’s not the landscape that we’re in,” Pearson said last week.
It certainly isn’t.
Based on a sampling of 25 public school districts in Minnesota, athletic participation fees in Duluth are among the state’s highest. The News Tribune chose 10 sports and compared Duluth to a variety of both metro and rural districts.
Duluth had the highest participation fee in six of the 10 - volleyball, soccer, basketball, swimming, baseball and softball. In two other sports, football and hockey, Duluth was second-highest at $235 and $500, respectively. It fared better in cross country and track (fourth-highest for each).
Only Edina, at $270, charges more for football. And only North Branch, at $525, is more costly for hockey. The average fee for football in the selected districts is about $143; hockey averages about $187.
The state’s largest school district, Minneapolis Public Schools, charges just $90 for hockey. That number is $65 at Moose Lake-Willow River and $87.50 at International Falls.
It’s important to note that each of those districts vary markedly in size, one of countless factors that must be considered when establishing athletic participation fees.
Still, the question abounds: Why is it so expensive to play a high school sport in Duluth?
“Essentially, (other districts) might be making the decision that they’re going to support that and use a bigger percentage of their general fund monies to keep those costs as low as possible,” said Bill Hanson, business services manager for the Duluth school district. “We’d love to do that, too, but again we’re looking at classroom challenges.”
For this analysis, only fees for varsity athletics and those for students in grades 9-12, were used. Many districts offer lower prices to participants in grades 7-8.

Doesn’t deter participation

Pearson admits he initially feared that higher fees would dent participation. So when the district implemented stark increases for the 2008-09 school year, and modest ones for 2011-12, he thought, “Oh, boy, this could be bad.”
Aside from the normal ebbs and flows, though, Pearson said there wasn’t a noticeable dropoff. That’s likely because of steep discounts connected to the free and reduced lunch program. For students whose families qualify for free lunch, participation fees are waived completely; the reduced-lunch fee is $25 per sport.
It’s a way, Duluth East athletic director Shawn Roed says, of making sure sports are accessible to all, “whether they have the money or not.”
Additionally, the Duluth school district caps a family’s spending on participation fees at $1,000 for a single school year ($1,200 if hockey is involved).
That is a common practice. Floodwood, a tiny district with some of the area’s cheapest fees, has a family maximum of $120; International Falls’ is $275; many have family caps of $500.
“We know that participation is spendy, especially to a lot of our kids that have brothers, sisters, siblings that are playing, as well,” said Floodwood AD Adam Johnson, whose school charges $60 for each sport. “We know it’s expensive, but we know how important participation is.”
Other districts have a descending fee structure. Princeton, for example, charges $125 for the first sport, $75 for the second and $50 for each additional one. At Bemidji, it’s $70 for the first sport and $60 for each one thereafter.
Even with some of those loopholes designed to assist financially strapped families, Hanson knows there are grumblings.
“We do hear those comments from other (parents), and we know families are economically challenged and families go through challenges at different times,” he said. “Hopefully, they are taking advantage of any benefits that are available from the free and reduced lunches.
“We understand that it’s a challenge, but at the same time we’re trying to keep as many resources in the classroom as we possibly can.”
Of Duluth’s two public high schools, 57.4 percent of Denfeld students qualified for free or reduced lunch in 2013-14; 21.7 percent of East students qualified. There are different parameters for the program based on household size. If a family of four, for example, has a total gross income of less than $44,123, it qualifies for free or reduced lunch and the subsequent discounts for extracurricular activities.

Setting the fees

The Duluth school district raised fees four years ago to negate a potentially devastating cut to athletics.
“The school district came to Shawn Roed and myself … and the number was something like $130,000 they wanted to cut from athletics,” Pearson recalled. “Really, what you’re faced with as an athletic director is, do we cut programs or do we raise fees to come up with that amount?”
They opted for the latter, underscoring their belief that an expensive sport is better than no sport.
“When we’ve been tasked with cuts, our goal is to always err on the side of keeping the programs,” Roed said. “The fees might be a little bit higher, but at least they have those opportunities.”
Roed says the process for determining fees is rather rudimentary. Basically, how much is needed to offset expenses? Those include equipment, travel, game officials, facilities, etc.
The Duluth school district’s perpetual budget woes haven’t helped, according to Hanson.
“Depending on our situation with deficits - which is what we’re generally looking at - we look at every opportunity within programs to either cut expenses or increase revenues,” he said.
Hanson also said another factor involved in the decision to raise fees often can be nothing more than the passage of time.
“If we sense that it’s been a while since we’ve had an increase, we might suggest an increase,” he said.
One thing the district has done recently to help save money is cut back on chartered bus rides. The district extended the distance for which it would pay for charters, explicitly picking a mileage that would exclude the Twin Cities, a frequent destination of Denfeld and East teams. Now, if they want a charter bus for a distance less than what the district stipulates, they must pay for it themselves.
While the fee increases of 2011-12 were relatively minor, it was a different story for those instituted in 2008-09. Before then, hockey used to cost $250, basketball was $140 (it now costs $235) and cross country was $100 (now $185).
Pearson said fees have been high “as long as I’ve been around Duluth athletics.”
That reality becomes more pronounced when stacked up against neighboring communities. It may not be entirely fair, however, to compare Duluth to surrounding districts, which are smaller and, consequently, better positioned to save money via less travel, fewer sport offerings and fewer coaches.
One school district, Barnum, just reduced its fees for spring sports because of the drastically shortened nature of that season the past couple years, according to athletic director Dave Duesler.


Hockey still a relative 'bargain’

On the Duluth school district’s list of participation fees, the one that sticks out like a missing tooth is the $500 required to play hockey. That’s a big hit to the wallet, and it’s about $313 more than the average of the districts studied here.
Despite that disparity, $500 - plus some additional team fees for equipment and travel - may not be as bad as it sounds.
“It’s actually a lot cheaper than what the youth level was,” says Chad Thompson, who has had three sons play the sport at Denfeld, including senior-to-be Nick Thompson. “It was a big break for us when the boys got into high school, a lot cheaper.”
Thompson says the annual cost of youth hockey was between $2,500-3,000 per child.
Even when all of his sons were playing at Denfeld - Zach and Alex Thompson graduated in 2013 - the family max kept spending in check.
“From the parents I’ve talked to, they can’t write that $500 check fast enough,” Pearson said.
To better understand that price tag, look no further than ice time. Hanson said the district spends between $100,000-110,000 for ice each winter.
At the Heritage Sports Center, the home sheet for Denfeld, East and the Duluth Northern Stars girls team, the per-hour rate is $170, up from $165 a year ago.
“It keeps increasing,” Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley said. “Ice time keeps increasing, and the costs keep going up; they don’t go down. And it has to come from somewhere.”
Smalley recalled his own days as a puck-playing youngster, when he could sell a box of candy to cover his participation fee and players and parents were responsible for flooding and maintaining the local rink.
A box of candy might be enough to purchase a pair of hockey gloves these days, but little else.
“To run a good program, there are costs,” Smalley said. “It’s probably no different than what Cloquet has to do, and Duluth East. We all have to do it if we want to continue to compete and have a good, solid schedule.
“Between (East coach) Mike Randolph and I, we want as much ice time as we can get for our kids. And we try to utilize it as much as we can, because if you don’t, you end up falling behind.”

Pay to Play graphic
News Tribune graphic

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