Board of Education Debates Funding, Equity, of Cooperatives, School Sports

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ESSEX/DEEP RIVER/CHESTER — Region 4’s Board of Education debated sharp disparities in budgeting for regional cooperative school sports at a Monday night meeting

In one instance, members of the boys and girls hockey team pay $900 and $1,100 each, while athletes in 28 other sports offered by Valley Regional High School don’t pay to participate.

“We have a responsibility to make sure it is equitable and correct this,” said Rick Daniels, a board of education member and Deep River resident.

The boys co-op with East Haven began in 2018 and the girls’ program began this year with Daniel Hand High School in Madison. Unlike the four other established co-op programs that allow students to participate in football, fencing and swimming, the school district does not cover the full cost of student athlete participation.

“We’ve been getting hit with all this information that wasn’t out before so we’ve been doing a lot of digging,” said Superintendent Brian White, in an interview before the meeting. “We provide transportation for some sports and not others, there is no consistency or reason behind it. It feels very haphazard.”

Hockey and fencing also require parents to drive their children to practice and games, while transportation is covered for the students on the swim and football teams. In fact, the school district pays $3,000 each for the boy swimmers and $1,331 each for the girl swimmers on transportation alone.

“If I get a question from a parent of a hockey player why this is, I don’t have an answer for them,” said John Stack, a member of the board of education.

“Just like the field trips these things should come before the board,” said DG Fitton, board member and Essex resident. “There are things in the last two years since I joined that never came before the board at all.”

Stack and fellow board member Paula Weglarz of Deep River said that in the future, a clear cap should be set on spending for athletics, and a process established for adding and removing sports.  

“At a high level we should have a certain number that we’re working from. We then need to support the highest number of kids that we can with that amount of money,” Stack said. “We may have to cut things back just because of critical mass.”

Weglarz suggested there might be a minimum number of student participants before a sports program is added. 

With the end of budget season fast approaching, the board wavered on how to proceed and whether there was the necessary time to consider Stack and Weglarz’s proposal.

“This is something that just came to light, we didn’t know about it before and we need to really think through a process for the future,” Daniels said. “We have a responsibility to make sure it is equitable. We should look at co-ops and non-co-ops together and take our time.”

Other board members thought differently.

“It has been brought to the board now. We can no longer fall back on the notion that we didn’t know about it. Is there now increased liability around this issue because of Title IV? Will this get disentangled before the start of the year so inequities don’t happen,” Stack said. “It’s messy, but here we are, it’s our job to deal with messy.”

The six regional cooperative sports agreements outline what participating towns must pay for – coaching and transportation, for example – and can include agreements to pay stipends for other sports.

“There have been attempts over the years to create equity, but these are 14-year-old agreements in some cases and some of the old vestiges of the original agreement remain,” White said. “Looking ahead we must revisit all the agreements to understand what historically they meant and how to proceed.”

White said that a review would likely require more than the few weeks left before the budget must be sent to the towns for a vote, that some of the contracts last for two years andthat  all involve multiple towns and the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference.

“I know it’s late in the budget season, but I’m not comfortable with voting on this,” Weglarz said.

The total cost of athletics currently proposed for 2020-2021 is about $200,000. The total proposed budget including athletics and capital projects is $20.9 million, a 2.96 percent increase over last year.

Next Thursday the board is scheduled to make a final vote on the budget

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