Portland school officials are considering a $388,000 spending reduction in the coming year that would fundamentally change middle school and freshman high school sports programs in Maine’s largest district.

They have plenty of company, as school districts across the state develop budgets for the 2010-11 school year that call for millions of dollars in personnel and program cuts to offset state and federal funding reductions.

In Portland, several interscholastic teams — football, field hockey, soccer and softball, to name a few — would be eliminated as part of a plan to save $188,000 on sports at the city’s three middle schools.

When possible, students would be encouraged to join community sports programs. For some sports, the district would start extramural programs in which middle school teams would play each other.

Portland and Deering high schools would save $200,000 by eliminating freshman sports programs, absorbing some first-year students into junior varsity teams and directing others to community sports programs.

“These are forced choices,” said Lee Crocker, principal of Moore Middle School in Portland. “We’re trying to replace a program that’s being offered by the schools with a program that’s being offered in the community. Some kids are on three different soccer teams. In these financial times, we simply can’t afford to be duplicating programs.”

Crocker noted that sports account for less than 20 percent of the $1.2 million in cuts planned for Portland’s middle schools, as the district prepares for a $4.6 million reduction in state and federal funding in the budget year starting July 1.

Gov. John Baldacci’s decision last week to increase education aid by $20 million statewide in the budget year starting July 1 might stave off severe sports reductions in some districts, including Portland, South Portland and Scarborough.

However, district officials are expecting budget troubles to continue through fiscal 2011-12, and they’re taking steps to further reduce sports costs and find other funding sources, including booster groups and student fees.

“Like everything else, sports are under the microscope,” said David Doyle, superintendent of Scarborough schools, where a $1.5 million reduction in state aid is anticipated in 2010-11.

The Scarborough School Committee hopes to reduce the district’s $750,000 sports budget by $250,000 in the coming year, Doyle said.

The committee is talking about re-establishing a pay-to-play policy that had been abandoned in recent years and asking booster groups to fund more teams. There’s also a proposal to streamline several booster groups into one fund-raising organization to support district athletics overall.

In South Portland, school officials have dropped a proposal for severe sports cuts — for the time being — after learning last week that the district will get an additional $622,000 in state aid in the coming year, said Superintendent Suzanne Godin.

The school committee there had been considering one proposal to significantly reduce middle school and freshman high school sports, and another proposal to raise $120,000 through a pay-to-play program.

Still, South Portland’s state aid allocation will be $1 million short, so the school committee plans to eliminate nine assistant coaches. A total of 25 positions are targeted for reduction in a budget plan that would require no tax increase, Godin said. The coach cuts would save $23,150.

Looking ahead, the school committee plans to appoint a task force to study the pay-to-play issue because federal funding anticipated in 2010-11 likely won’t be available in 2011-12, Godin said.

“We do anticipate having a gap we’ll need to fill in the future,” she said. “It’s really taking a two- or three-year view of our financial situation. Each year we balance cuts we need to make with how many students will be affected. The question will be: Can we continue to offer the depth and breadth of sports programs we now have?”

Portland Superintendent Jim Morse considered including a pay-to-play fee schedule in his $89.3 million budget proposal, but he said it wouldn’t make financial sense. About 50 percent of Portland’s 7,000 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and would be eligible to have the district subsidize their sports fees.

Portland school officials also are looking for a new way to increase community support for school athletics, similar to the charitable foundation that raises money for sports programs in Boston public schools.

For now, Portland’s middle and high schools are bracing for significant changes in their sports programs. Savings would come from reduced coaching, transportation and officiating costs.

There’s a chance that some of the sports cuts could be restored when school officials decide what to do with the additional $1.4 million in state aid that Baldacci allocated to Portland last week, but many people and programs are vying for a seat on that lifeboat.

The Portland School Committee could restore some of the 66 teaching positions targeted for elimination or use the money to offset an estimated 22-cent increase in the tax rate.

Sports advocates hope athletics cuts will get fair consideration. They worry that the district will lose the ability to develop scholar-athletes if responsibility is passed to community sports programs.

“We believe these to be very deep and very painful,” said Mike Johnson, principal of Portland High School. “But our varsity and junior varsity coaches have guaranteed that they will provide a quality opportunity for freshmen to compete.”

 

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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