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Steamboat Springs High School sports in funding crisis

Steamboat Springs High School boys tennis coach John Aragon feeds balls onto the court during practice in August in Steamboat Springs. The boys tennis program is one of the Tier 2 sports that are in danger of losing funding because of a projected $30

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April 10, 2012: Steamboat Tier 2 sports funding is uncertain

— At Steamboat Springs High School, extracurricular activities like sports always have played a unique role, particularly when compared to other schools across the state. 

As one of the smallest schools in Class 4A — with enrollment often one-third of its athletic counterparts — Steamboat offers more activities and sports than any school in its classification. It even offers more athletic opportunities than most Class 5A schools in Colorado. In fact, an astounding 85 percent of the school's 643 students participate in an extracurricular activity. 

But a harsh reality is upon the school. 

Increasing transportation costs have put the school district and the high school's athletic department at a crossroads. There is a projected $30,000 sports program transportation deficit for the 2012-13 school year. Just two years ago, that number was $16,000, and Athletics Director Luke DeWolfe cut eight coaching positions and trimmed elsewhere to make up the gap. 

Now, the decisions won't be as easy. The options are to cut athletic programs, find an additional $30,000 or perhaps stop funding so-called Tier 2 sports altogether. 

"This is a discussion that really has needed to happen," said DeWolfe, who presented the School Board with several proposals last week. "It's probably overdue in a lot of ways. At this point, I wouldn't say anything is off the table."

A tiered system 

In many ways, Steamboat's tiered sports program is archaic. It began in 1974 when parents created a club cross-country team. The School Board allowed it as long as it didn't financially impact the high school or district. The boys soccer team started the same way in the mid-1980s, and the district began labeling those add-on sports as "Tier 2" in the early 1990s. 

As recently as the 2007-08 school year, Tier 2 sports were self-funded. But to avoid liability issues with travel, the district began to fund transportation costs, as well as some coaches salaries. 

This year, there are 289 student-athletes who play Tier 1 sports and 259 who play Tier 2 sports. 

But with fundraising decreasing across the board and transportation costs rising each year, those associated with athletics are trying to find solutions. 

"The biggest thing is we've tried a lot of this stuff," Steamboat Springs High School Principal Kevin Taulman said. "It's just led to the Band-Aids. It's time really to have the conversation and see where it goes."

In the interim, DeWolfe, Taulman and others said they don't want to cut sports. That means Tier 2 sports would need to become self-funded, or the district needs to make up the $30,000 shortfall. 

In his proposal to the School Board, DeWolfe put together a list of what the proposed cost per student would be if Tier 2 sports were self-funded. Although the numbers didn't include any funding from the programs or Booster Club, the increases for Tier 2 sports participants could be staggering. 

Hockey would be the hardest hit, with players and their families seeing a $1,115 increase per player. 

"The potential for hockey, as an example, we pay $150 and then an additional $750, and that could go to $2,000," said parent P.J. Wharton, who has two sons who play hockey.

"It could be the difference in fielding a team and not fielding a team."

Solutions ahead 

Wharton had suggested at Monday's School Board meeting that the mandatory activities costs for all student-athletes be increased across the board.

DeWolfe said he would be hesitant to do that because Steamboat's activity fees are some of the most expensive in the state and certainly the most expensive on the Western Slope. 

Families pay $150 per student per sport, with a family maximum of $350. DeWolfe said increasing that could hurt participation. 

Regardless, all involved agree that talking about the issue is a step toward a solution. 

Superintendent Brad Meeks said Friday he would like to have the framework of a plan for the School Board's first meeting in May. He said it's possible for the district to find the $30,000 as a short-term fix for the next school year. But he said he'd like to put together a committee to look deeper at the Tier 1 and Tier 2 debate.

Whatever comes out of that discussion most likely would be implemented for the 2013-14 school year. 

"The bigger question is the whole tier system and whether we want that system to continue," Meeks said. "We need to find a short-term solution and a long-term solution to the problem. I've heard parents say, 'Let's take a harder look at this. We need to come with a longer-term solution.'"

To reach Luke Graham, call 970-871-4229 or email lgraham@SteamboatToday.com