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Budget cuts for assistant coaches reconsidered following backlash

fr coachesBudget cuts impacting assistant coaches at the middle and high school level will likely be restored in Haywood County Schools following public outcry from the youth athletics community.

The budget for assistant coaches is around $120,000 a year, paid for with local funding the school system gets from the county. Money to pay assistant coaches was cut completely in the proposed budget for next school year.

Due to public backlash, however, the school board agreed last week to try to reinstate at least some of the funding for assistant coaches’ salaries.

“A lot of our phone lines have been lit up about this,” School Board Chairman Chuck Francis said.

Exactly what portion of the budget cuts for assistant coaches will be restored is still in flux, however.

“That is something we are still working on,” Francis said.

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Advocates of youth athletics have come together to make a case for the role of sports in the middle and high schools.

“A lot of these boys and girls, they use this as an escape, a time to get away from troubles at home an everything else,” said Rodney Phillips, a volunteer assistant coach for Canton Middle and Canton High wrestling teams. 

Erik Melville, the varsity girl’s soccer coach at Tuscola High, said sports help develop important life skills.

“Kids get a lot more out of school athletics than just wins and losses. You get a lot of life lessons,” Melville said. “I hope when my girls graduate they have learned a lot more about how to be a person than just what we did between the lines on game days.”

Around $164,000 earmarked for head coach salaries was untouched by the budget cuts.

Assistant coaches make between $500 and $1,100 a season, depending on their years of experience and the demands of a particular sport.

Most assistant coaches have other full-time jobs in the school system as teachers and get a stipend for doing double duty as an assistant coach during the athletic season. But some assistant coaches are simply community members who carve time out of their day jobs and family duties during sports season to work with youth athletes.

Commissioner Bill Upton, the former principal of Pisgah High and school superintendent, expressed concern over the budget cuts for assistant coaches.

“If we are going to put a team on a field we need to make sure we have the number of coaches they need to be successful,” Upton told school officials during a county budget workshop earlier this month.

That’s exactly the fear that was expressed to school board members.

“There is no way one coach can coach 42 boys and teach them how to wrestle,” Phillips said.

Melville said he would be in the same boat without an assistant coach.

“The numbers would not allow me to work that many kids at the same time,” Melville said.

Phillips is a walk-on assistant coach — meaning he does it solely as a volunteer — for both the Canton Middle and Canton High wrestling teams. There’s always a chance some assistant coaches would do it anyway as volunteers, simply for the love of the game and the kids. But most probably wouldn’t.

“Time is too valuable to them,” Phillips said.

Upton said assistant coaches make a huge difference in a team’ success, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“When you have a good athletic team people are more apt to give. When you are losing you have to beg for money,” Upton said

That makes it harder for teams to attract donations and spectators at games, which bring in critical revenue to support other needs of the team, from uniforms to travel costs. Cutting assistant coaches could lead to less successful teams, which in turn could lead to even more financial challenges for teams if game attendance goes down as a result, Upton said.

Not to mention, athletic success bolsters school pride.

“Athletics aid academics,” Upton said.

While the $120,000 budget for assistant coaches may seem high, consider this: there are 104 sports teams at the two high schools and three middle schools in the county. While the iconic football teams get most of the attention, there’s cheerleading, tennis, golf, swimming, soccer, volleyball, softball, track — and the list goes on. Add to that girls and boys divisions, varsity and JV divisions, both at the middle and high school, and the number adds up quick.


Making ends meet

When the school board initially proposed cutting the budget for assistant coaches, they didn’t expect the positions to go away. They hoped teams would be able to come up with the money on their own to fund the assistant coaches.

Sports teams make money off ticket sales at home games and meets, concessions and fundraising. Teams currently rely on that money to pay for uniforms, equipment, insurance and travel.

It could be tough for school sports to stretch the money they bring in from ticket sales and fundraising to absorb the cost of assistant coaches on top of all the other expenses they have to cover, however.

Melville said the girl’s soccer teams at Tuscola use the same uniforms for eight years as it is — four years for the varsity team, and then passed down to the JV team for another four years.

Most sports don’t generate enough revenue from concessions, tickets or fundraising to cover the team’s costs. But the money generated off the big sports is put into a single athletic kitty for each school and used to help support the non-revenue generating sports.

“Football and basketball help subsidize everything. It is that way at every school in the state, because those are the big money makers,” Melville said.

Upton said he fears if there wasn’t enough money to go around, some of the less popular sports that bring in less money could be jettisoned.

“I would hate for schools to get in the position of saying ‘Do I drop this sport? Do I not drop this sport?’” Upton said.

Another possibility schools were considering was to increase the participation cost to students, but that’s got its drawback as well: it could knock poorer kids out of the sport.

“There is a lot of kids in our county that couldn’t afford it. We don’t want them to be left behind,” Phillips said. 

Currently, it costs students just $10 a year to play school sports. 

Sports teams can likely expect some sort of student fee increase no matter what.

“We are one of the last counties that don’t have a participation fee,” Melville said.


Bigger picture

The $120,000 budget cut for assistant coaches in middle and high school sports is only one small sliver of $2.4 million in budget cuts across the entire school system next year. Yet it was the one line item that school board members said they heard the most outcry over from the public.

The need for sweeping budget cuts was brought on by a trifecta of reduced state funding for classroom education, charter schools siphoning students and money away, and a gradual decline in enrollment due to a demographic shift that saw lower birth rates and out-migration during the recession.

Superintendent Anne Garrett said the school system is continuing to comb through the budget and figure out a way to backfill the cuts for assistant coaches.

“We are looking at every single thing we have to see if some of that can be reinstated,” Garrett said.

However, there are a lot of unknown variables and moving parts that make it hard to say at this juncture, she said. For example, if state lawmakers enact another round of teacher salary raises, the school system will have to come up with its share of those raises locally, but that won’t be known for several months.

Further, the school system’s state funding allocation will remain a mystery until well after next school year begins and the final pupil head count is tallied, which in turn dictates how much state funding the school system will get. Another wild card is how many students the new Shining Rock Classical Academy charter school will draw, which could cut into the school system’s budget.

“We don’t know what the charter school numbers are going to be so we don’t know what our state allotment is going to be,” Garrett said.

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