Parents: We'll Pay the Price to Keep Programs
Fee a 'rude awakening,' but doesn't stand in way of student participation.
Junior Jess Lyons had never been a part of the newspaper club before, but last year, she took a journalism class, and decided she loved the idea.
For her upcoming year, she decided, she wanted to be part of The Prowler, Bridgewater-Raritan High School's student newspaper, and she prepared herself to join the club.
Then, the district found itself in the middle of a budget crisis, and rumors began to circulate that students would be required to pay to be part of clubs and sports.
Fortunately for Lyons, and other students throughout the district, when the rumor became reality, many parents decided it was more important to give their children the benefits of participating in these activities then to quibble over some additional costs.
In an effort to avoid eliminating clubs and sports across the board at Bridgewater-Raritan High School, the Board of Education instituted a new pay-to-play policy this year that requires payments of $100 per sport being played by an individual, and $25 to participate in certain clubs.
The $100 fee applies to all sports, as well as marching band, rifle squad, color guard and cheerleading.
The $25 flat fee applies to middle and high school clubs and activities for which the district pays stipends to advisors. The fee is paid once, regardless of how many activities one student participates in, and includes clubs like Fall Drama Production, School Newspaper, Yearbook, Student Council and the Robotics Team.
"There was a rumor last year, and we would say, 'no, this won't happen,'" Lyons said. "But then we got something in the mail with a small notification about it. It was a rude awakening if you didn't know about it."
But, surprisingly, many students, faculty and parents are finding that paying the fees is not too bad as long as they have something to participate in.
Lynne Bray, president of the Athletic Club, was one of the members of the committee that put together the pay-to-play policy, and she has a daughter who is a senior on the softball team.
"We thought the $100 fee was fair," she said. "For anyone who played rec sports before, those fees were more than $100."
But between that fee and the $25 for clubs, Bray said, people so far are not really complaining about the new payments.
"I do think the fees will deter people from joining just for the sake of saying they are joining a club," she said. "It used to be you could put down a lot of clubs, but now that we're asking for a fee, this might deter a 'let me see if I make it' mentality."
The option of eliminating the programs entirely, or at least some of them, Bray said, did not seem like the best solution to the desire of cutting the budget while not ruining the experience for the students.
Fee Better Than Nothing
One thing that was initially discussed, Bray said, was the elimination of the ice hockey team, rather than going to a pay-to-play option. Some thought that sport was considered one of the more expensive, she said, but the committee did not feel that was fair.
"I think it is important for kids to have a place to excel if they are not academic," she said. "I think this was a good alternative, rather than saying scrap the freshmen teams or the junior varsity."
Martinsville resident Rodney Pennella, whose son, Michael, is president of his sophomore class and plays both football and baseball, said he believes it was better for all sports to be pay-to-play, rather than eliminating some and not others.
"I am all for everything or nothing," he said. "Keep it inclusive. I think that we can't segregate the sports."
Of course, Bray said, there will be refunds for families if a player is injured and cannot play, if the family moves away or other similar circumstances.
At this point, Bray said, there have not been complaints about the new policy, part of which because many families are used to paying more for the recreation sports and other activities. In total, she said, the committee was trying to figure out a way for the district to generate $40,000 in revenue from sports and clubs.
"We tried to weigh the options and decide what would be a fair way for those who can't afford it," she said. "But with everyone who plays paying a fee, people were more than happy to do so. I haven't heard anyone say it isn't fair. I've been very pleasantly surprised."
Lyons joined about 20 other students for the first meeting of The Prowler on Sept. 15. Despite the new $25 payment requirement, this was her first time taking the opportunity to be part of the club.
"I took the journalism class and was really into it, so I decided to join the paper," she said. "Of course, the $25 wasn't fun."
Investing for the Future
But for Lyons, she considered joining the club as an investment for her future—just a small piece to get her where she wants to go.
"Journalism might be something I want to do in the future," she said.
Lyons said her parents were completely on board.
"My dad was a little on the, 'are you serious' side about the payment," she said. "But my mom said I needed to do something. So I've already paid."
But Lyons' family is not an anomaly in a district where parents, teachers and even students have expressed their support for a new policy that, while possibly expensive, enables them to continue participating in the activities they love.
"If I didn't have to pay, I certainly wouldn't want to," Pennella said. "But if these activities enhance life for my kid, then I'm all for them. Both me and my wife find that this is important."
For many, it's the chance to participate in some kind of activity that is a step toward a future career, and some parents have said they would rather pay the money than see the programs eliminated.
"I think sports add something positive in the way kids learn to handle life in general," Pennella said. "Even given the circumstances, if my son is interested in something, I'm going to pay."
Participation Remains on Par
John Maggio, athletic director at the high school, said participation in the sports has not changed since the costs have been instituted this year.
"Our fall participation numbers, at this point, appear to be the same, maybe even a little higher," he said. "And we have not received one complaint in my office about the fee."
Superintendent of Schools Michael Schilder said at the Sept. 14 Board of Education meeting that he had expected to receive many more complaints than he has actually received since the school year has begun.
Melissa Franco, a member of the Band Parents Association, said she has not seen a decrease in the number of students participating in marching band this year. She said this year she has only had to pay the $25 for her son, Alexander, to participate in the stage crew at the high school because her daughter, Jelissa, is no longer a member of the color guard.
"I do understand that no matter what clubs, sports or activities my kids join, there are always going to be additional costs," she said.
With four kids, and one—Victoria, a student at JFK Primary—participating in both the Bridgewater United Soccer Club In-Town Program and Girl Scouts, Franco does have costs to consider.
"I coach soccer for Bridgewater United Soccer Club In-Town Program and they outsourced their uniforms, so we had to pay for signing up both seasons, and pay for a uniform to a separate company," she said. "And each order had to pay for shipping. I have a lot of unhappy parents about that. I am also co-leader for Girl Scouts, and there have been more costs per activities with that organization as well."
With those costs, and the new pay-to-play policy Franco said, she understands the concerns about rising prices.
"It's all across the board," she said.
Amy Sepesi, an English teacher and advisor to the newspaper club, said she was not surprised to see nearly 20 students at the first meeting of the year, despite the payments. Although students did not have to pay to attend the first meeting—they only pay once they decide to remain part of the club—she believes the club's numbers will not dwindle any more than usual.
"There are typically a lot of students at the first meeting, then people drop out with other things," she said.
But students at the Sept. 15 meeting were excited to volunteer to write various articles, offering their services to cover several for the first issue of the newspaper that is released about five times a year.
"I was not surprised about that," Sepesi said. "There is no indication that anything will change with the new payments."
Amy Gallagher, high school advisor to the yearbook, said she had about 60 students attend her first meeting Sept. 15, which is about normal.
"They seem to be coming, despite the required payments, however the students will not be charged the activity fee until their applications are accepted for staff member status," she said.
Senior Syjil Ashraf, who is serving as editor-in-chief of the newspaper this year, said there were a few more people at the meeting than usual.
"The staff was small last year, and not many stayed around," she said. "I got people to join this year."
But Bray said she expects the new policy will make students more selective when deciding what sports to pursue or clubs to join.
"If kids are not fully involved in a club, we will see a drop-off," she said. "That's why they don't have to pay at the very first meetings. And with sports, you will choose what you have a passion for."
Worth the Cost?
Bray said she has also heard some concerns about paying to participate in certain clubs, but people have not removed their children from the organizations to avoid having to pay.
"Some say that they have put in all these hours, why should they have to pay," she said. "For clubs, they basically feel that why should they have to pay."
Fortunately for Pennella, who has three kids, his other two have already graduated from the school district. Otherwise, he would be paying for three children to participate in sports at the same time.
Pennella said he understands where that would be an issue for his family, and for others who might find themselves in a similar situation.
"If I was a first-time parent in the high school, I could see the frustration with it and wondering if the kid is going to play," he said. "I would have a different thought process if I had three kids in the school at the same time."
Some of her friends, Lyons said, are unhappy about the new policy, and are not planning to participate in clubs because of it. But, she said, she believes it will be the biggest detriment to incoming freshmen who don't necessarily know what club they belong in or which sport they should try out for.
"Freshmen come into the high school and they want to learn if they want to do a sport," she said. "They shouldn't have to pay to try it out."
Ashraf said she has heard some complaints about the new policy from friends who do not feel they should have to pay to contribute, and this will be something the newspaper will be evaluating in its first issue this year.
"Some people are a little mad about it, but not too much," she said. "The budget cuts have gotten students fired up. And my mom said, 'what's the point of public school then.'"
Of course, Pennella said, there is the preconception that Bridgewater-Raritan is a wealthy district, so parents should have the funds to pay the costs. But when talking about the two different municipalities, that it not always true, he said.
"There is a little bit of wealth," he said. "But Bridgewater is more prominent than Raritan, and some people have that attitude."
For example, Pennella said, he has been involved in Little League teams with the Bridgewater Baseball Organization, and there is a policy for parents to work off the bond paid at the beginning of the season. All they have to do, he said, is work in the Snack Shack during games or other similar tasks to work off the costs, which have risen over the years from $50 up to $125.
But many parents, Pennella said, decide not to work.
"They would rather not work, just pay," he said. "Many say they are not going to work, just take the money."
Still, Pennella said the biggest fear is that parents may not be as likely to pay the costs if their kids are not participating as much in the clubs or sports.
"We will see how many people will be involved if their kids are not playing a lot," he said. "Because they pay extra and their kids are not as involved, the parents may be less likely to help."
Finding the Funds
For organizations like the newspaper and yearbook clubs that require outside funds to produce their products, the district is currently still paying those costs.
"The school funds the publication and there is no indication of a change to that," Sepesi said. She said the district prints 3,000 copies of each issue of the paper, and they are distributed in homerooms and district offices.
"We are looking into a new company to save money for printing, but we have no contract yet," she said. "Otherwise, there are no changes."
Gallagher said the yearbook is only funded by the school district in terms of paying stipends to the teachers that work with the club. Outside of that, she said, all yearbook expenses are paid through baby picture ads and book sales.
"I do not foresee them ever cutting funding to the yearbook, as it is an integral part of our school environment," she said. "If it becomes a financial burden, I believe it would simply result in raising the price of the book."
Ashraf said she is even thinking about an option of instituting fundraisers to raise money for the newspaper club as it moves forward with its publishing schedule. But at this point, she said, that is still a work in progress.
For the most part, Bray said, this new policy is about finding a way to keep the clubs and sports that students enjoy, while also figuring out a way to help the district's budget problems. Despite the mixed reactions, most people are sticking by the organizations they enjoy.
"If we want it," Bray said, "we all have to contribute."
This story is part of a nationwide Patch series probing the economy's effect on local schools. For more more information, see here.