High School Sports

Bumpy road ahead for Paso Robles athletics

Budget cuts proposed by the Paso Robles Public Schools include setbacks for a Paso Robles High program that has nurtured standouts such as Robbie Burbank.
Budget cuts proposed by the Paso Robles Public Schools include setbacks for a Paso Robles High program that has nurtured standouts such as Robbie Burbank. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Coaches at Paso Robles High are worried about the future. They’re not so much concerned with their own fates as they are those of the student athletes they work with.

A possible budget for the upcoming year preliminarily outlined late last week by Paso Robles Public Schools included two cuts that would significantly impact the school’s athletics programs. The budget would eliminate all coaching stipends, and it would also cut sports transportation funding by an additional 50 percent (it was recently cut 12 percent).

Mickey Cook, the head coach of the Bearcats’ track and field team, was peppered with “how-will-it-affect-me” questions from students in his math class this past week.

“We talked about economics and the state of affairs in California,” Cook said. “The bottom line is the ones it hurts most are the kids. That, to me, is the real tragedy of all this — that kids are the ones who’re going to pay the price.”

Of course, coaches don’t know entirely how to answer such questions yet. The school district asked its unions to discuss the proposals by Friday in order to bring a formal list of cuts to the school board between February and March.

“These were proposals,” noted Derek Stroud, Paso Robles’ baseball coach. “We’re kind of all in limbo.”

The cuts, which would be part of an effort to save the district at least $7.4 million over the next year-and-a-half, would also lead to increased class sizes and staff furloughs, among other measures.

“Obviously, everything’s bleak,” said Rich Schimke, the school’s football coach.

Track and field, football would be hurt most by transportation cuts

Simply because of the size of their rosters, the school’s track and field and football teams would feel the worst brunt of the transportation cuts. The track program doesn’t cut students and usually took 150 athletes on three buses to meets.

“You don’t have to be an All-American sprinter or thrower,” Cook said of the inclusive policy. “You can compete against yourself. If you long jump 12 feet, you can set a goal and say, ‘I’m going to get 12 (feet)-6 (inches).”

Now, Cook said, the writing is on the wall that the program might have to leave about one-third of the team home for away meets. The obviousness of the situation recently left a member of his team asking pointed questions.

“He’s a great kid,” Cook said. “And he’s going, ‘Coach, if I’m not one of the best ones, does that mean I’m not going to get to go to away meets?’ I’m going, ‘Yeah, that’s basically what that means.’ It’s tough to look a 15-year-old in the eye and say that.”

Although there has been some talk of parents or friends driving students to competitions, that would entangle the district in liability issues because the events are officially school-sanctioned, coaches said.

“The rules that are in place might have to be changed if we want to continue,” Schimke said. “Because we can’t continue what we’re doing with the finances we have. We have to find different avenues if we’re even going to be allowed to have athletics now.”

The school’s student athletes already pay $60 in transportation fees per sport, although the fee is capped at $120 per family per year. In the Bay Area’s Mt. Diablo Unified School District this year, for example, students had to pay entirely for their transportation because of budget constraints.

“It would be a shame if a person wouldn’t be able to play because of a transportation fee,” Stroud said. “We’re going to have to find ways to be more efficient — to save a dime wherever we can.”

Paso Robles has already cut scheduling for a number of out-of-area events, particularly at the freshmen and junior varsity levels, athletic director Mark Rose said. However, local scheduling is more costly for Paso Robles than others given that it’s the farthest-north school in the area. The school has already begun to contemplate new methods of fundraising, Rose said.

“I don’t like to ask for money outright,” Rose said. “We’re up for ideas. A lot of schools are in the same boat. We’re going to have to sit down as athletic directors and say, ‘What can we do to keep these teams out there?’ ”

Stipend a matter of ‘principle,’ justification for coaches

Seasonal coaching stipends at Paso Robles range between nearly $1,500 and $4,000 depending on the sport, Rose said. In most cases, that payment equates to less than $1 per hour of work, coaches said, given the jobs’ practice and clerical demands.

The stipend can be used to account for a number of expenses related to coaching, ranging from supplies to meals away from home after games end as late as 10 p.m.

“We’re definitely not doing it for the money; it’s for the love of it,” Schimke said. “But at the same time, every little bit helps.”

Scott Larson, in his 33rd year as the Bearcats’ boys basketball coach, said eliminating stipends would have a “devastating” effect in dissuading future coaching candidates from pursuing the opportunity.

“It’s more the principle of the thing,” Cook said. “You like to think you’re recognized and rewarded for your efforts. That small stipend gives some validation, even if it’s superficial, certainly, to your work and effort.”

Coaches lament cuts as educators first

“It’s a real critical time for education,” said Larson, a history teacher. “If we want to have good schools, if we want to have quality education for our kids, it takes money to do that.”

The budget would fit into a statewide trend of generally marginalizing extracurricular activities to preserve the core basics of reading and writing, arithmetic and sciences.

“That stuff’s great for the morale of a school,” Schimke said of extracurricular activities, including sports. “I’m kind of at a loss right now.”

Such activities often provide unique memories and play an instrumental role in giving students added reasons to attend school in the first place, coaches said. The school’s varsity football team had a collective grade-point average of 3.4 this past season, Schimke said.

“A lot of the reasons students go to school is to have those (extracurricular) opportunities,” Schimke said. “It also keeps kids motivated to keep their grades up. We’re talking about keeping kids happy.”