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Pay-to-play high school sports is not OK in San Luis Obispo County

To field sports teams as they have in the past, public high schools throughout California are increasingly relying on students’ families to make up for dwindling state funds.

But a 26-year-old state Supreme Court ruling that forbids mandatory pay-to-play arrangements is challenging athletic directors, coaches and students across the state, including those in San Luis Obispo County.

The key, according to legal experts, is whether payments are required of athletes or made voluntarily. The former cannot be done; the latter is legal.

But sometimes that distinction can become blurred in the appeal for help.

In April, facing a $7.8 million shortfall, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District approved massive budget cuts. Among the measures, Paso Robles’ coaching stipends (ranging from $1,500 to $4,000) were eliminated, and teams’ transportation funding was slashed 50 percent (resulting in a 62 percent decline over the past two years).

Soon after, the school’s coaches distributed a news release to local media hoping to get the word out that they needed help. The coaches stated that “the burden of support for our athletic program is going to fall on the families of the athletes of Paso Robles High School,” and added that the cuts “could possibly lead to the end of interscholastic athletics as we know it.”

A year ago, Paso Robles students and their families were asked to shell out a voluntary $60 per sport, and in light of the recent cuts, teams are expecting to need $20 to $40 more this year, Athletic Director Mark Rose said.

Such appeals have become commonplace statewide as schools seek to provide transportation, uniforms and equipment for teams.

Templeton and Coast Union, for instance, asked this past year for contributions of $100 and $50, respectively.

“A lot of schools are doing everything they can to keep the lights on,” said Tina Jung, an information officer for the California Department of Education. “In the past two fiscal years, our education funding has been cut $17 billion — $17 billion, with a ‘B.’ Schools have got nowhere to go.”

Explicitly requiring students to pay in order to be on teams may seem like a convenient fix.

However, imposing fees on students and their families as a requirement to belong on a team violates a 1984 California Supreme Court ruling — Hartzell v. Connell — that still serves as a statewide precedent, according to several lawyers who’ve handled such cases.

Rose, Templeton Athletic Director Phil James and Coast Union athletic director Bill Clough said their schools haven’t excluded a student who cannot make what they call a voluntary financial contribution from being on a team, and won’t in the future, in compliance with their understanding of the law.

Julian Crocker, the San Luis Obispo County superintendent of schools, said that schools are able to seek donations in a general fashion, but that no school can legally exclude a student from participating in a sport based on financial ability.

That said, while Paso Robles has finalized its upcoming fall schedules, Rose acknowledged the school’s future capacity to fulfill such schedules will hinge on how much the public will be willing to bring them to fruition.

“We’re just hoping parents understand,” Rose said. “If people don’t come up with the money (voluntarily), we’re just going to have to stay home.”

Influential ruling

Hartzell v. Connell had its origins in 1980, when the Santa Barbara High School District cut its budget by $1.1 million. Soon after, students were explicitly required to pay $25 per sport, and Barbara Hartzell, a mother of two students, filed a taxpayers’ action claiming the mandatory fee violated the free-school and equal-protection guarantees of the California Constitution.

In 1984, authoring the opinion of the California Supreme Court, Chief Justice Rose Elizabeth Bird ruled, “Once the community has decided that a particular educational program is important enough to be offered by its public schools, a student’s participation in that program cannot be made to depend upon his or her family’s decision whether to pay a fee or buy a toaster.”

The district argued that a fee-waiver policy that allowed needy students to play was enough to satisfy the Constitution. Bird, however, rejected that argument, writing, “Nor may a student’s participation be conditioned upon application for a special waiver. The stigma that results from recording some students as needy was recognized early in the struggle for free schools.”

Kirk Ah-Tye, who represented Hartzell in the case, said public awareness of the ruling has generally faded in the past 26 years.

But Gary Kreep, a San Diego-area attorney, has overseen several lawsuits in Southern California stemming from alleged Hartzell v. Connell violations. His legal team either won or settled in all but one of the cases, he said, with the one loss due to a parent moving outside a district after a lawsuit was filed.

“Basically, instead of education being an equalizer, you’ve got rich-versus-poor,” Kreep said in a phone interview. “That’s not what public education is for. It’s to help everybody, not just those who can afford it.”

Sally Smith, a family-law attorney also in the San Diego area, has recently become known there for her work imploring schools to follow Hartzell v. Connell.

“When you go to a public school, we’re all equal,” Smith said. “No child should think, ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have the money.’ ”

According to an e-mail sent by Jung, “there are certain supplies for which a charge may be appropriate,” in a situation where a student would get to keep the supplies after an extracurricular activity, such as wood for a woodshop class.

Jung made clear, however, that “schools cannot require students to pay a fee to participate in programs that are part of school or extracurricular activity.”

Looking for answers

Statewide, many schools have already restructured, if not eliminated, freshman- or junior varsity-level programs to deal with tighter budgets. Last year, for example, the Los Padres League — which includes Morro Bay, Nipomo and Templeton — eliminated all freshman sports.

Rose said Paso Robles has already cut back on future travel plans, as well as equipment allowances, and won’t be buying new uniforms any time soon.

“We’re going to have to do with what we have unless something breaks,” Rose said.

In years past, the Paso Robles athletics booster club has typically raised between $60,000 and $80,000 per year, said the club’s president, Dave Lambert. The club has usually operated with a core of eight volunteers putting in about 40 hours per month of independent fundraising that has helped cover costs such as transportation and equipment, he said.

“There’s only so much we can do,” Lambert said. “We all have full-time jobs, plus families, but we know how important it is (to provide future students the same opportunities). That’s what keeps us going.”

In upcoming fundraising efforts, Rose said, Paso Robles is looking to put on more events such as pancake breakfasts and barbecues, which could be more popular with the public.

“The economy is hitting everyone,” Rose said. “We’re trying to come up with ways to make a little money to support our athletes without milking the community dry.”

WHERE THE LAW STANDS

What schools can lawfully do to support athletics programs: Generally pursue fundraising, seek sponsorships and collect donations

What schools cannot lawfully do: Exclude a student from belonging to a team based on a lack of any voluntary financial contribution

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