High School Sports

Paso Robles facing tough sports future

Paso Robles High’s Austin Swank hits a double during a game earlier this month against Nipomo.
Paso Robles High’s Austin Swank hits a double during a game earlier this month against Nipomo. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

At best, the future of sports as we know them at Paso Robles High is murky.

Last week, in light of a $7.8-million shortfall, the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District approved sweeping budget cuts, three of which will severely impact the Bearcats’ athletics programs starting next year.

All coaching stipends, which ranged from about $1,500 to $4,000, were eliminated. Moreover, teams’ transportation funding was cut 50 percent, following a 12 percent reduction from the previous year.

“The future of this athletic department is really nebulous if (budget-cutting) keeps going on,”

33-year boys basketball coach Scott Larson said. “It really bodes poorly for the future. I feel sorry for young kids trying to go through school and have the same sort of experiences I was able to have.”

Paso Robles isn’t alone in feeling the brunt of the ongoing statewide economic crisis, even in terms of local prep sports. The neighboring Los Padres League, for instance, recently cut all freshman-level programs heading into next season, and Atascadero recently had to freeze assistant coaches’ stipends. But so far, no other San Luis Obispo County community has been faced with overcoming quite this much.

Several coaches argued sports, in addition to other extracurricular activities — arts, drama and music programs were also drastically impacted — play a vital role in keeping students interested in attending school in the first place.

“There’s a significant number of kids I’ve coached where, had it not been for basketball, they probably would’ve dropped out or wouldn’t have been as successful as they were,” Larson said. “It’s a motivator for a lot of them to do their best, to stay eligible and to graduate.”

The cuts were originally proposed in January, and Paso Robles’ athletic department was waiting until they were approved to begin detailed planning for how to compensate, athletic director Mark Rose said.

“Our goal is to continue to field all the teams we have been,” Rose said. “My goal is to be able to provide the same experience for kids coming in that all the others who’ve graduated from here over the last 115 years have had. So we’re going to make it happen, one way or another.”

Coaches fear losing stipends could impact quality of applicants

Several coaches estimated their stipends equated to less than $1 per hour of coaching work — adding that hence, they weren’t “in it for the money.” Most did, however, say the stipend was merely a matter of principle, in that it has served to help them justify the nights they spend away from their families, as some games, meets and matches can run as late as 9:30 p.m.

As of Friday, however, no coaches had told Rose they planned to step down, he said, although he could understand why losing the stipend might give some reason to pause. Nine Bearcats varsity head coaches hadn’t returned phone messages left Thursday seeking comment as to whether the cuts would influence their futures.

Girls basketball coach Mike Gray called losing the stipend a “slap in the face,” adding he was undecided about whether he’d return. Boys volleyball coach Dieter Hayes, while clarifying that he planned to move on following this season for other reasons, anyway, said that had he intended to return, losing the stipend would almost certainly influence him to walk away.Worse yet, according to Hayes, who works in the private sector, losing the stipend could make it more difficult to attract quality candidates with experienced backgrounds.

“It’s going to hurt the kids,” Hayes said. “You can’t just say, ‘Hey, who knows anything about volleyball?’ and then someone says, ‘Yeah, I played in a rec league back in the day,’ and expect that person to be able to teach.”

Larson, a former California Coaches Association Boys Basketball Coach of the Year award winner, agreed.

“How are you going to entice quality people to give their time and expertise for nothing?” Larson said. “And beyond that, now you may have to spend even more hours raising your own money if you want your staff to be paid or to cover transportation. It’s insane to me.”

Lower-level competitions, out-of-area tournaments likely to be left off schedules

Because of previous cuts of transportation funding, certain teams have already had to cut some games, meets and matches at the freshman and junior varsity levels, as well as select out-of-area tournaments used to acclimate teams to playoff-like environments.

“The kids are the ones who pay for it,” wrestling coach Chris Monteiro said.

Monteiro, who plans to return next year, said next season his program will look to raise about $20,000 more than the $8,000 it has been bringing in independently.

Partially in place of gas-guzzling, more expensive buses, the department hopes to be allowed by the district to use more fuel-efficient vans in the future, Rose said.

It has been suggested that parents simply transport children to events, although district rules prohibit parents from independently doing so in their own vehicles, Rose said. Parents are, however, allowed to independently drive them home after events and can bring several to events in district vans (of which there’s a limited supply) after passing a DMV check and a district-taught driving course.

“We need to get more permission to do some unique things,” Rose said of future travel possibilities.

Where will new money come from?

Complicating matters, Rose also saw his athletic director role redefined as part of the cuts so that half of his days will now be spent in a teaching capacity.

“Now, he’ll have half the time to do twice the work?” Larson said. “To me, that’s ludicrous.”

Paso Robles students now pay $60 per sport in transportation fees, with a $120 cap per family per year. One of the department’s goals, Rose said, will be to put on more fundraising events designed to bring in money via people from outside the area.

This past November, for instance, the department organized the Wine Vine Run, a widely inviting half-marathon event held at Meridian Vineyards that raised nearly $3,000.

“We’d like to do more things along those lines,” Rose said. “You can only fund raise so much (directly) in a small community.”