Pay to participate comes to Wilton High School

Participation fees, a program colloquially known as “pay to participate” or “pay to play” for high school athletes and other school clubs, are coming to Wilton following a lengthy debate at Tuesday night’s Board of Education meeting.

The final result of the meeting on April 9 is that Wilton athletes will pay no more than $100 in participation fees per sport. Club fees would be $25 for grades three through eight, and $50 for high school students. Athletes previously paid a $50 participation fee to cover supplemental insurance costs.

The discussion was necessitated after the Board of Finance rejected the proposed fiscal year 2014 budget, saying the Board of Ed must shave $750,000.

The session, originally scheduled for Thursday night, was moved to Tuesday at an early start time, which seemed to bring sparse attendance as a result. Only a small number of public comments were heard at the opening of the meeting, with Claire Craven, a mother of a hockey player, speaking out against the possibility of extra fees being imposed on the hockey team.

Ms. Craven stressed the fees should be all-encompassing, and emphasized she understood the decision to implement pay to play, which the school currently does not do.

“I’m not sure why you would target only athletes to pay,” she said. “What about all of the clubs of varying degrees? I have a difficult time understanding why would you penalize hockey players, when they are the only students who truly have pay to play, given the high cost of equipment and ice time in the post-season.”

A lengthy review of the budget, presented by Assistant Superintendent Tim Canty and Director of Finance Ken Post, followed before the topic turned to making the necessary spending cuts.

“The administration put together a very thoughtful budget,” said Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly. “We put forth what we thought was a very aggressive budget. The Board of Finance decided to cut it by three-quarters of a million dollars.”

The overall tone of the evening was frustration with the Board of Finance.

“Some people are going to be happy with what we do,” Mr. Likly continued. “Some people are going to be unhappy with what we do. I’m proud to sit at this table.”

The Board of Education considered different cuts, with Secretary Karen Birck pondering if elimination of some athletic teams would help with the budget difference.

“There are other venues,” Ms. Birck said. “As an example, swimmers could go to the Wilton Wahoos,” referring to the team at the Wilton Y.

Mr. Canty spoke strongly in favor of keeping all the teams intact.

“There would be great concern about reducing any of our athletic programs,” he said.

Recalling comments at a 2008 meeting about the prospect of a participation fee, Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards said, “Rather than cut sports, we’d rather pay the fee.”

Each board member spoke out against participation fees.

“Participation fees are divisive at the student level, at the parent level, at the community level,” Gil Bray said.

Added Laura Schwemm: “Participation fees are a slippery slope.”

Said Christine Finkelstein: “The driving factor going into these cuts was to stay away from the classroom. I think we’re not going to have a choice but to go this route.”

“The fee opens the door to privatization of public education,” Ms. Birck said. “If we allow the Board of Finance to make policy for the Board of Education, then the balance of power between the Board of Education and the Board of Finance is going to swing in favor of the Board of Finance.”

Speaking emphatically, Mr. Likly said, “I’m sure I’m going to be quoted on this, but I think the Board of Finance’s choice of $400,000 is ludicrous and arbitrary. I don’t believe they actually looked at our participation fees study. I don’t think they sought any public input on that number and I don’t think they took enough time to look at our budget to understand how thin and thoughtfully put together it already was.

“I also believe that any cuts that we make to our school budget are cuts that are too deep at this point. Yet we still are faced with $750,000 that we have to agree to tonight.”

The debate led to a motion and vote by the board, with Mr. Likly, Ms. Rothstein and Ms. Finkelstein voting in favor. Ms. Birck, Mr. Bray and Ms. Schwemm were opposed.

“We have a problem,” Mr. Likly said.

Cuts were made for staff replacement, heating oil, diesel fuel, furniture, high school clubs, technology projects, textbooks and curriculum professional development, and various line items until a deficit of $195,823 remained.

With $35,823 cut in the athletic budget, an approximate deficit of $160,000 remained.

“These budgets have really been scrubbed,” Mr. Canty said.

Further deliberation determined the board could allow the remainder of the difference to be revamped with a participation fee. Originally determined to be at approximately $200 per athlete, the adjusted fee would be no higher than $100 per athlete, which swayed Ms. Schwemm’s vote. Following another motion, the revised budget passed by a 4-2 vote.

The Board of Education will next meet on Thursday, April 25, at 7 in the Wilton High School Professional Library.