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'Pay to Play' debated at Statehouse

February 13, 2013

Woonsocket athletic director George Nasuti. PHOTO BY ERNEST A. BROWN.

PROVIDENCE — When the North Smithfield public schools tried to raise money for interscholastic sports in 2009 by assessing participation fees, some students paid the charge willingly, but the move was met with legal challenges and dropped when booster clubs raised the necessary money to run the teams.
The idea — referred to by critics as “Pay to Play” — is unpopular with athletic directors in urban communities like Pawtucket and Woonsocket, and the RI Interscholastic League is opposed to the idea. But it was revived last week when the House Health, Education and Welfare committee heard a bill from Middletown that would allow school districts to charge an activity fee for extracurricular activities, including sports.
Currently, there is no state law on fees for extracurricular activities, but the RI Department of Education has said the prospect violates the state law guaranteeing free public education. There is a law, however, that allows outside individuals and businesses to contribute money to school districts for extracurricular and other activities.
Woonsocket High School Athletic Director George Nasuti says, “I think it is a crazy idea; I never supported it and never will. I don’t believe in it at all.
“It develops a class warfare,” Nasuti explained, “Those kids who can pay for it, those kids who can’t. The amount of poor kids who can’t do it, what are you going to do when they can’t pay.”
“It’s not as do-able in inner cities,” said John Scanlon, athletic director at Pawtucket’s Tolman High School. “Over 80 percent of our kids are on the federal (free and reduced price) lunch program. They can’t even buy a lunch, let alone play to pay. So I don’t see that happening pursuant to the financial situation most of our families are in.
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“If 80 percent are on free and reduced price lunch, you are going to make 20 percent pay to play and the other 80 percent you have to waive,” Scanlon added, “so I don’t see any of that happening. I don’t think it is fair to inner city kids, I think it would take away programs.”
Scanlon said he and other school and athletic officials in Pawtucket haven’t talked about the issue “because the general feeling among us is that we just couldn’t do it, nor could Providence, nor could Central Falls.
Cumberland School Committee Chairwoman Lisa Beaulieu notes that Massachusetts allows school districts to charge, not only for sports, but for things like bus transportation and all-day kindergarten.
Scanlon said he lives in Rehoboth, where schools may charge for activities; students in other area towns such as Seekonk do as well.
Testifying in favor of allowing fee structures for activities at the House HEW meeting, Middletown School Committee Chairwoman Theresa Spengler said “we are not looking to overcharge, we are not looking to make this support the program completely, it would be to subsidize and be part of the process, but not to completely fund a sports program or an extracurricular activity.
“No child would be denied the opportunity to participate in an activity because of funds,” she said. “The school system would create a protocol and a policy and procedure to make sure no student is denied access based on dollars from participating in an activity.
Tom Mezzanotte, executive director of the RI Interscholastic League (RIIL), said, “I disagree with it and (RIIL’s) Committee on Athletics has disagreed with it as well.”
He quoted a RIIL Position Statement that says: “The RIIL Principals’ Committee on Athletics is of the opinion that students should not be assessed fees for the privilege of participating in high school athletics... In the opinion of the Principals’ Committee on Athletics requiring “pay-to-play: is a shortsighted educational policy and can be discriminatory to the needy.”
“I think there needs to be a bigger conversation about what communities can charge for and not,” said Beaulieu, the Cumberland School Committee Chairwoman. “As it stands now, schools can’t charge for any kind of activity, unlike Massachusetts.
So which way would she rather have it – the ability to charge or not?
“In totality,” she answered, “I’d like to have some options; in isolation, no. It’s too difficult. It becomes really contentious when it’s a single entity, like pay-to-play sports.” In Massachusetts, “they’ve transferred that responsibility to the municipalities.
“Having no ability to charge for anything is really problematic,” Beaulieu said.”
The House HEW committee, chaired by Warwick Rep. Joseph McNamara, a retired Pawtucket school administrator, voted to hold the bill for further study.

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