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A price to play

With two daughters playing volleyball, Brian Steller figures he’ll spend around $4,000 this year on volleyball-related expenses.

There’s club volleyball in the off-season, volleyball camps during the summer, gym memberships, school participation fees, ankle braces, kneepads, athletic wear and travel expenses, including four trips to Eugene, one to Roseburg and one to Grants Pass this fall.

"If you want to make a team, you have to do everything you can to improve your skill," he said.

While they consider themselves middle class, the Stellers still fundraise. They hold at least one garage sale a year, specifically to raise money for athletics, and the daughters — one attends South Medford High School and the other McLoughlin Middle School — go door to door asking for bottles and cans.

 "Total the girls have raised between $500 to $600 a year in can deposits," he said.

 Steller said he doesn't mind that the Medford School District charges fees to play in sports.

"Participation fees are necessary to help maintain the school equipment, fields and uniforms," he said. "That all costs money, and it’s got to come from somewhere. I don’t think it’s right that the school pays for everything. The kids who really want to play will find a way to pay."

But do they? This summer, Medford School District officials are looking at ways to remove financial barriers for young athletes while continuing to maintain a quality athletic program.

In its adopted budget, the district allocated $487,335 for secondary athletics based on projections that it would bring in $140,000 in gate admission and $220,000 in participation fees.

The district adopted pay-to-play fees in April 2004 as an alternative to cutting teams. The money has been used to offset the cost of equipment, travel, referees, umpires, uniforms and other sport-related expenses.

In May, the budget committee recommended that these fees be waived entirely and that the district replace this revenue source with money from the contingency fund.

The Medford School Board asked administrators to make the final decision. While administrators were concerned that a pricetag might deter kids from coming out, they decided to cut athletic participation fees in half, rather than eliminate them, and not collect fees until after teams had been formed.

High school athletes, who had previously paid $150 per sport with a $300 cap, will now pay $75 per sport with a $150 cap. Middle school athletes, who previously paid $75 per sport, will now pay $37.50 per sport with a $75 cap.

 "These fees came about due to an economic downturn some years ago," said the district's new superintendent, Brian Shumate. "The economy is looking up, and our intent is to make sure all kids get a chance to participate. Rather than do away with (the fees) in one fell swoop, we decided to cut them in half and bring them down gradually.

"If the economy continues to stabilize and the funding continues to come in, we will look at additional reductions to meet the recommendation of the budget committee," Shumate said.

Budget committee members weren't entirely satisfied with the administrators’ decision. Karen Starchvick said she had hoped the district would address all participation fees and not just those associated with athletics. And Jim Norris felt that extracurricular activities should always be free.

"Fundamentally, it hasn't changed anything because there is still a fee associated with it," he said.

As the fees were projected to yield about $220,000, the district will transfer $110,000 from its contingency fund to make up the difference, said Brad Earl, the district’s chief financial officer.

"The intent of this is to make sure every kid has a chance to participate and to make sure we aren't shutting kids out because of their inability to pay up front," Shumate said.

In the past, if a student had paid the fee and then didn't make the team, his or her money was refunded. Although paying the fee up front was not mandatory, there was that perception, said Jeff Thomas, board chairman and interim head coach for the North Medford High School girls soccer team.

"This way, we can get kids on a team, because they deserve to be on the team, then we can determine how to collect that fee and how we as a community can support them," he said.

Last year, 739 South Medford students, between 700 and 750 North Medford students, 416 McLoughlin Middle School students and 571 Hedrick Middle School students participated in at least one sport. About a third of the high school athletes had a portion of the cost waived, and about 140 middle school athletes received a full or partial fee reduction.

The new fees are now less than the national average, which, according to a study by the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital in Michigan, is $93.

 In 2012, the hospital, in collaboration with the University of Michigan, conducted a national survey of parents of children age 12 to 17. The survey showed that 43 percent of the parents had a child who participated in at least one school sport. Of those families, 61 percent paid an average $93 participation fee. The fees were waived for 6 percent of the families.

The fees, in addition to other sports-related expenses, made the average cost for playing a school sport $381. As a result, only one-third of low-income parents had a teen playing a school sport, compared to more than half of higher-income parents.

Athletic directors Dennis Murphy at South Medford and Tim Sam at North Medford said although they don’t turn away students who can’t afford to play, there is no way of knowing how many don’t come out because they are embarrassed to ask their parents or the school for assistance.

"We help anybody and everybody that comes to us for help," said Murphy. "If a kid wants to participate and has the ability to participate, then money is not a factor that would prevent them from participating."

Most of the coaches organize fundraisers to cover additional events, equipment or gear outside the district budget and to take some of the financial pressure off students.

Emily Marshall, who was recently named the head volleyball coach at South, said the girls on her team have to purchase spirit packs, which include two practice shirts and a pair of spandex shorts, for $35. Although not required, the girls also are encouraged to wear ankle braces, which can cost between $50 and $100, and attend a volleyball skills camp ($70) and conditioning camp ($50) in August.

Marshall said she awards scholarships to some of the girls who volunteer to help with the third- through eighth-grade summer volleyball camp.

"And there have been times when I've bought kids’ ankle braces out my own paycheck," she added.

This year, because of new regulations, South’s volleyball team will need to buy three new sets of uniforms — two for varsity and one for junior varsity. The school will pay for part of this expense out of its athletic allowance, but the team will have to raise the rest, Marshall said.

"One set of uniforms is about $75," she said. "Multiply that by 14 girls, that’s $1,050. And that’s just for one set."

Tom Cole, head coach of the South Medford High School girls basketball team, which advanced to the state championships for the last four years and won in 2012, said last year his team was sponsored by Nike and received free uniforms, shoes, backpacks and warm-ups. From 2011 to 2013, Adidas sponsored the team.

"I tell them how spoiled they are because they were given brand new gear and brand new stuff because this company recognized them for their successes," he said. "When those wins change, so will the responsibly of getting matching shoes."

Sam said the school’s football team typically raises between $25,000 and $30,000 a year for camera systems, head sets, blocking slides and other pricey equipment. Last year, they also spent about $10,000 on refurbishing the locker rooms in Spiegelberg Stadium.

"This year, they have to buy new uniforms," he said. "Uniforms will cost about $125 per kid. If you’ve got 60 kids on the varsity team that’s in the neighborhood of $8,000, which is already over the district’s supply budget (for the team)."

Michael Polataivao, a junior at North, said he will be selling coupon books this summer, along with the rest of North’s football team, to raise money for the program.

For the last two years, the district has awarded Polataivao a $50 scholarship toward the $150 participation fee, and in June, his coaches paid for him to attend a three-day football camp in Portland, which cost more than $200.

One of eight children, Polataivao said he used his older brother’s cleats for the first two years, but this year, his brother bought him his own pair.

Polataivao took summer classes at Central Medford High School so he would meet the credit criteria to be eligible to play football again this fall.

"When I play sports I work hard to keep my grades up so I can play," he said, admitting that his grades sometimes drop in the off-season.

Ernesto Hernandez, 15, a sophomore at North, said he was asked to sell at least three T-shirts this summer as part of a fundraiser for the North boys soccer team. Hernandez sold one to his brother, one to a teacher and one to a friend. The money, he said, will go toward new uniforms.

Hernandez’ family moved here several years ago from Mexico. He frequently plays soccer in the park with his friends and at home with his brothers. However, he didn't join a team until his freshman year at North because his family couldn't afford it.

Last year when he joined North’s team, he had to buy cleats, shinguards and socks. He bought an "almost new" pair of cleats from a friend for $10 and his shinguards from another friend at a bargain.

This summer, he’s attended almost all of the non-mandatory, pre-season practices offered at North in the hope of improving his game and possibly making varsity.

Last year, he was awarded $50 scholarship toward his participation fee. He said his parents never complained about paying the $100 for him to play, but he knows they think about it.

Booster clubs and community organizations such as the Rogue Valley Timbers Soccer Club and Maslow Project have been known to assist students in getting the athletic equipment they need to play.

Thomas said he’d like to see more community organizations step forward and support kids from low-income families who want to play sports. However, he felt the administrators' decision regarding fees was a fair compromise.

"This allows the district to study the effects of how only collecting half the fees will affect the athletic budget and allow the district to see if more kids try out for sports because they don’t have to pay right away," he said.

Reach reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or tthomas@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.

North Medford sophomore Ernesto Hernandez, 15, says he didn't start playing soccer on a team until his freshman year because his family couldn't afford the fees. Mail Tribune / Jamie Lusch