Students, parents and high-school athletics department staff made the case at Tuesday's school board meeting that sports play a critical role in supporting students' social-emotional health and thus deserve the funding necessary to sustain that.
The board room was full of community members calling on district leadership to support a proposed budget allocation of $180,000 $90,000 for each high school to "restore" the schools' athletics programs.
For Eli Freelander, a Palo Alto High School senior and athlete, sports have "offered a great way to relieve stress during hard academic times and an outlet when anything else is going on in my very difficult teenage life."
For Walker Rosenthal, a Paly freshman who moved to Palo Alto this past summer, joining the football team was the way he made friends and adjusted to life at his new school.
For Melissa Anderson, co-president of the Paly sports boosters, sports sustained her children's personal and academic health from freshman year onward in numerous ways.
"It helps a large school become a little bit smaller. It reduced their stress. It's a great way to learn discipline and to also build relationships with other teammates and coaches and other adults," Anderson said. "We all know that connection with other adults on campus is a way for kids to succeed in high school. They learn things on a sports team that they don't learn in the classroom. I think that sports absolutely support classroom learning."
Many parents told the board that athletics eased their children's transition from middle school to high school. In particular, playing a fall sport gives students a built-in group of friends from the first day of school.
Students and parents described how athletics supports their children's well-being at a time and place where such needs have become of paramount importance and a major commitment of the school district.
"We talk a lot about social-emotional (health) in this district and we talk about listening to kids and seeing where their spark is, where their interest is," parent Kristin Andersen said. "Kids vote based on their enrollment. That is their voice. When you see them sign up in these numbers for athletics, they're telling you something: 'This is important to me.'"
But the parents who do the fundraising for these key programs say they're stretched thin, and need the district to step up its support.
Paly Athletic Director Kathi Bowers told the board that "every single cent" of the school's $250,000 to $275,000 athletics budget is raised by sports boosters. While the school district pays for personnel, such as the coaches' and athletic trainers' salaries, parents are left to fundraise to support the fabric of the programs: transportation, league dues, officials' fees, tournament entry fees, equipment, uniforms, training room supplies, team awards and the like.
Gunn Athletic Director Curt Johansen said that his school's athletes attend about 350 competitions each year and there are usually two to three officials per contest, the costs for which the schools have to cover.
The district did used to supplement parents' fundraising efforts, but it was cut in 2001, according to the Paly sports boosters. The schools moved to a "pay-to-play" model that asked student-athletes to pitch in a $100 fee. That worked well for awhile, Bowers said, but it was decided several years ago to shift to a donation-based model.
Other surrounding districts pay for their schools' Central Coast Section (CCS) and league fees as well as the cost for officials and some, for transportation, school staff said. The proposed $90,000 for each school would cover transportation, referees and leagues fees for the programs over two years.
Bowers said that more than 1,000 Paly students this year are participating in at least one sport 150 more students than last year. Since cuts were made years ago, the schools have also added new sports, including boys and girls lacrosse, freshman football, freshman volleyball and freshman basketball. Another parent said that because of a new law that will go into effect in 2017, cheer will become a sport and "we will be adding to the burden of sports boosters at that time."
"We're all scrambling for the last dollar and it's very difficult," a mother of a freshman cheerleader at Paly said. "It takes a lot of the parental goodwill when we have to keep going back and asking and asking and asking (for money)."
"Cheer and dance, like many extracurriculars, provide a way for students many of whom would otherwise be on the margins a positive outlet and sense of community," she added.
School board members indicated support for the additional funding, though it was not up for a vote Tuesday night.
"I can't imagine a high school without an athletic program," said board member Melissa Baten Caswell, just as she can't imagine a high school without theater, choir, speech and debate and arts. She and other board members stressed the importance of supporting whatever it is that high school students gravitate toward outside of the classroom.
Board Vice President Terry Godfrey said while her high school son "goes to school to play lacrosse," for her graduated daughter, it was water polo, swimming and journalism. For other students, its robotics, choir, glass-blowing or something else, she said.
"All of them we should look at with that same eye that it's their (students') family on campus," Godfrey said.
Superintendent Max McGee has said that the series of proposed budget requests, including for high-school athletics, will return to the board for action at the board's next meeting on April 19. McGee and his staff will also provide recommendations at that time for which budget items to prioritize in the coming school year.