Worcester Not Considering Charging Athletes

BERLIN — Despite a growing trend toward “pay-to-play” policies for sports and other extracurricular activities in the face of shrinking budgets and other cutbacks, Worcester County public schools officials will not be collecting fees from student athletes any time in the near future.

Public school systems across Maryland and throughout the country are adopting stringent fee schedules for students to participate in sports and even music, fine arts and drama in many cases. Just last week, Queen Anne’s County joined the ranks of school systems in Maryland that will start charging students fees to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities and neighboring Wicomico has a plan in place although the policy has not been adopted. Earlier this summer, Prince George’s County adopted its own “pay-to-play” policy following a growing trend among public school systems to offset the tough economy and stringent budget cuts.

Worcester County, however, at this time is not considering charging its students for extracurricular activities such as interscholastic sports, band or drama, for example.

“At this time, we have no plan to require our students to pay for extracurricular activities,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Jon Andes this week. “There has been no discussion and it’s not even on our radar.”

Andes said Worcester considers those activities essential extensions of the overall school curriculum and charging fees for the many programs is not being considered.

“Sports, performing arts, fine arts, music and drama are all extensions of our everyday programs and essential experiences for our young people,” he said. “Charging students to participate in these types of activities would infringe on their ability to have a full and robust educational experience. We think these activities are an extension of what we do every day in the classroom.”

The “pay-to-play” issue has caused considerable consternation in school districts across Maryland and around the country where the policy has already been implemented. Many believe the policy is saddled with inherent flaws including the potential for exclusivity in that only those students with the accessible means will be able to participate, although most policies reviewed this week include waivers in cases where hardship can be proven, or total exemptions for students eligible for free or reduced meals.

Wicomico is considering adopting a “pay-to-play” policy that would charge students participating in football to pay a $45 fee, while all other sports would cost $40. In Queen Anne’s County, which sent a letter home to parents last month outlining the new “pay-to-play” policy, the decision was driven largely by drastic cuts to the school system’s budget.

“The Board of Education of Queen Anne’s County believes that, for many students, extracurricular activities help promote educational achievement,” the letter reads. “However, due to severe cuts to the 2011-2012 budget, the cost of extracurricular activities has outpaced the ability of the Board of Education to adequately fund these activities.”

As a result, Queen Anne’s County officials have adopted a stringent “pay-to-play” policy. Students in Queen Anne’s County who participate in an interscholastic activity including ninth grade, junior varsity or varsity athletics are now required to pay a fee of $100 per activity. The $100 fee is imposed on each season sport, meaning a student-athlete who participates in more than one sport could be forced to pay as much as $300. However, no parent or guardian will be forced to pay more than $140 per season if they have multiple children in interscholastic activities.

In addition, Queen Anne’s County is also imposing “pay-to-play” fees on other extracurricular activities related to fine arts including music and theater productions. For example, students who participate in marching band, Jazz band, chorus, choir or theater productions will be forced to pay a $35 fee for each activity. Again, no parent or guardian will be forced to pay more than $140 if they have multiple children participating in the activities.

For some school systems, the move to a “pay-to-play” policy is more political than practical. In larger school districts, however, the measure could make a serious dent in growing deficits, particularly when it comes to funding extracurricular activities or risking not offering them anymore.

For example, in Prince George’s County, the 18th largest school district in the nation with 198 public schools, 127,000 students and an annual budget topping $1.6 billion, every fee collected could help keep sports teams on the fields and musicians and artists on stage. Earlier this summer, Prince George’s County adopted a policy charging a one-time fee of $50 to cover a student’s participation in sports for the entire school year.

“This is the first time we have implemented an activity fee for high school athletics in our district,” said Superintendent Dr. William Hite, Jr. this week. “It is one of the many strategies that will enable us to continue enrichment and extracurricular programs for our students during these difficult economic times.”