The Hamilton-Wenham High School football team works out. The school’s $969 student fee to play football is the highest in the region. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Generals Practice

By Rich Fahey
Globe Correspondent /August 24, 2008

Hamilton-Wenham football games will cost close to $100 a pop this fall.That’s not for seats on the 50-yard line, but what players who suit up for the Generals pay to play: a $969 user fee, the highest for football in communities north of Boston.

Sports isn’t funded as part of the school budget. A combination of athletic fees, private fund-raising, and gate receipts provides 100 percent of the money, and athletic director Don Doucette has become a master at stretching the dollars.

“You’re going to see a lot more of this in the future,” said Doucette. “I’ll be a featured speaker out there some day, telling people how to do this and what to avoid.”

The original fee to play football at Hamilton-Wenham was about $1,400, but that was reduced to $969 by fund-raising and projected gate receipts.

Sticker Shock
Hamilton Wenham Sport Fee
SOFTBALL $625*
BASEBALL $684*
FOOTBALL $969*
Gloucester Sport Fee
PER SPORT $302
WINTHROP Sport Fee
PER SPORT $350
SOURCE: Local school districts
George Patisteas/Globe Staff

Of the 32 public high schools in the area, 23 have sports user fees. Most are hefty, with some parents on the hook for more than $1,500 a year.

While most school districts have waivers in place for those unable to pay, some districts have no cap on the cost to families with multiple athletes. At Pentucket Regional in West Newbury, which also draws students from Groveland and Merrimac, it is estimated that it will cost $850 to play hockey this winter, with other sports ranging from $200 and $400. A family with two or more athletes – especially two hockey players – could be hit with a tab for thousands of dollars.

Doucette said participation in some sports such as hockey, field hockey, and softball have taken the hardest hit at Hamilton-Wenham. The hockey programs have been “farmed out” – the boys play for Salem High while girls can play for the team at Masconomet Regional in Topsfield. Hamilton-Wenham also shares a gymnastics team with Manchester Essex Regional High School.

There have been other bumps and bruises under the new system.

“There were three programs last winter that struggled to fill out their rosters, and I don’t know what will happen with them this year,” said Doucette.

Private fund-raising has become vital to keeping many school sport programs afloat. Athletic fees at Gloucester High School skyrocketed 116 percent for the coming school year in what the School Committee said was part of a continuing effort to make the program self-supporting.

Under the guidelines set recently by the committee, the fees for most sports at Gloucester High – including baseball, basketball, football, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, field hockey, softball, and tennis – would rise from $140 last year to $302 this year. Cross-country and track would go from $95 to $205, and ice hockey, last year the most expensive sport at $195 per season, would jump to $475.

The Gloucester Fishermen Athletic Association has stepped in with donations to keep the fees from skyrocketing further.

Richard Wilson, copresident of the fishermen’s association along with former School Committee chairman Jonathan Pope, has taken a can-do attitude when it comes to keeping the sports programs at Gloucester High as affordable as possible.

The association, founded in 2006, is a nonprofit dedicated to raising funds to support all athletic programs and facilities in the schools and the city. The group is in the middle of a membership drive aimed at enlisting 1,000 people at $50 each, with the goal of making a $50,000 donation to defray athletic fees for the upcoming school year.

“We can be the solution,” said Wilson. “We can make the program self-funding using entrepreneurial means.”

The association’s first Save Our Sports night generated $70,000, but the second only $30,000.

So the group has embarked on other ways to raise revenues, including selling signs at the high school playing venues, which will generate between $15,000 and $20,000 a year. It also is working in conjunction with the city to see if student-athletes can perform community service work to help pay off athletic fees.

“Our goal is to make sure that no student who wants to play a sport can’t play that sport because of the athletic fee,” said Wilson. “That’s the first goal.”

Private fund-raising is also helping lower costs in Winthrop, where a $1.55 million Proposition 2 1/2 override failed in June. High school athletes were facing a fee of $450 per sport, $200 more than last year.

A $50,000 gift from the Viking Pride Foundation will lower fees to $350 per sport, with a cap of $1,575 for families with two or more children who play multiple sports.

Al Petrilli, in making the contribution to the Winthrop School Committee, warned that Viking Pride can’t support the school athletic program on its own. “We cannot fix the problem,” he told school board members. “We continue to be a very large Band-Aid on a wound that continues to bleed.”

Vincent Crossman, another member of Viking Pride, said he knows fees are already affecting participation. “Students don’t want to pay big money to sit on the bench, he said. “And kids who are freshmen aren’t going to spend the money to try something new if they’re not sure they’re going to like it.”

Winthrop’s neighbors – Lynn, Everett, Revere, Chelsea, and Malden – have managed to keep athletic programs fee-free, for now.
Click to view table showing sports user fees at high schools north of Boston.

Rich Fahey can be reached at [email protected].

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