PORTLAND — With tight budgets, school districts across Maine have turned to pay-to-play policies in recent years to support their extracurricular programs.

But in the Portland Public Schools no fee is charged for participation. Assistant Superintendent of Schools Jeanne Crocker this week said, “We are committed to continuing that.”

“We are proud of our co-curricular program and know it’s of great importance to many, many of our students,” Crocker said. “Offering co-curriculars is part of our commitment to the whole student and we know these (programs) are doing good, important work that’s of high value to students and their families.”

Last week the School Board heard a presentation about the extracurricular programs at the city’s middle and high schools, with a focus on sports.

The purpose of the presentation, Crocker said, “was to bring the whole topic of co-curriculars to the forefront as we go into the budget season.”

In a memo provided to the board at its Jan. 2 meeting, Superintendent Xavier Botana said,”Late in last year’s budget process, a board member asked staff to evaluate the possibility of moving toward a pay-to-play approach to athletics/co-curricular programming.

“As we approach this budget year, staff believes this would be a good time for the board to understand (our) co-curricular programming … and how it supports the district’s academic, whole student and equity goals.”

In the 2018 fiscal year, athletic programs at Portland and Deering high schools represent a total expenditure of $1.4 million in an overall budget of about $105 million, according to information provided to the board.

Botana said the programs are “tremendously important to providing a well-rounded education,” and said the School Department is focused on two key aspects of extracurricular offerings: equity and funding.

Melanie Craig, the athletic director at Deering, and Phil Darasz, the athletic director at Lyman Moore Middle, were the main presenters at last week’s meeting.

“What excites me most about the Portland schools is that we’re seeing a lot of energy around non-traditional sports,” Craig said. But, she added, that also means “we need to better balance our resources” as the schools work to improve their response to student interest.

Portland and Deering high schools still mainly offer traditional sports, from football and basketball to cheering, tennis, lacrosse, swimming and volleyball.

But, Craig said, there’s also a “tremendous” and highly competitive ultimate Frisbee team at Casco Bay High School. District-wide, she added, “there are a lot of other non-mainstream sports that are also gaining.”

While the School Department is generally responsive, there’s more the district can do to maximize its resources and combat the cultural and systemic barriers to participating that some students still face, Craig said.

For instance, students of color have a lower rate of participation. Other barriers include a lack of transportation, access to facilities and better engaging parents and the wider community.

“We want our athletics and other programs to be a source of pride,” Craig said. “We have great kids and a great community and at the base of it all our students still want to wear that school jersey.”

Even so, she admitted that school-sponsored sports are facing challenges from specialized sports clubs, which often means that kids have less time to play on the school team.

“Our kids are often torn and exhausted,” Craig said in response to a question from School Board member Jenna Vendil on how club sports are affecting the school-based programs.

In all, she said extracurricular programming “is a key extension to the academic piece.”

“It’s our job to provide the maximum opportunity for kids to participate in a safe and secure environment where they can (both) try and fail and begin to answer the questions of ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Who do I want to be?'”

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or [email protected]. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

At a recent basketball game, the Deering High School girls held on to beat Portland High School, 48-43.

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