Coaches express frustration as South Summit sports funding redirected to teacher salaries
Dozens of coaches and their supporters came to Thursday’s South Summit Board of Education meeting to protest a reduction in athletic funding that they claimed threatened the heart of the district.
Cody Bowen, who coaches the boys golf team and said he has worked for the district for 22 years, said at the meeting several coaches are leaving this year, and many have told him the reason is “it’s just not worth it anymore.”
“I’ve never seen it worse than it is now,” Bowen said. “We’re underpaid, undersupported; demanded more than we’ve ever been demanded.”
The district is shifting many aspects of athletic funding off the district’s books and into student fees. Coaches will now have to fill out detailed budgets that account for every expected cost – down to team dinners – and to build those costs into student fees.
The coaches said they were told in a July 10 email from the high school’s athletic director, Shad Stevens, that the district’s funding of their programs was being zeroed out.
Superintendent Shad Sorenson said the district would continue to pay for coaches’ pay and travel expenses as well as to maintain fields, and that the district continues to invest heavily in athletics.
He said the difference in funding would now come from student fees, and that the individual teams’ budgets could stay the same while coming from different sources.
The coaches said it would now fall to them to fundraise to make up the difference between student fees and the total budget, yet another responsibility in a job that pays a pittance. It will also take more administrative time to craft detailed budgets, they said, time they could instead use with the kids they coach.
Sorenson said he understood the coaches’ perspectives and suggested a possible solution, but made clear there was no guarantee he’d be able to find the money. As part of the coaches’ budgeting process, he asked coaches to look at what expenses could be reduced and what they couldn’t live without. He’d use those numbers to put together a proposal to ask the board for more funds.
School board President Suni Woolstenhulme said the changes free up $143,000, which was allocated to pay for teacher salaries as part of a 4 percent raise and classroom supplies.
Sorenson said the wage increase may not seem like a lot to those receiving it, but it cost the cash-strapped district $600,000, including the funds redirected from the athletics program.
“We have to be competitive on salaries,” Sorenson said. “Part of that core mission is having an excellent faculty … and that core academic mission cannot be neglected.”
Sorenson explained the policy change as a result of actions by the state Legislature and a district focus on allocating more money to teacher salaries.
In an effort to reduce hidden fees for students to participate in team sports, like unexpected dinners out or the cost of a team sweatshirt, the Legislature has mandated coaches detail exactly how much they’ll charge in student fees and what that money will be spent on, Sorenson said. The idea is to make it less likely kids will be priced out of playing sports, but it has resulted in a major uptick in administration time and a restructuring of the way things are done. In addition, the district has added costs like upgrading shoulder pads to the burden of student fees, rather than paying for them itself.
At the same time, Sorenson said the board has also asked school administrators to look for efficiencies or ways to reduce their budgets. After checking with other area school districts, including North Summit, Park City and Wasatch County, and those of comparable size elsewhere in the state, the district recommended cutting what it contributes to the athletics program.
Now South Summit coaches are feeling the squeeze, and many see it as just one more reason that it’s now harder to teach and coach in the district.
Bowen, who was chosen to represent the viewpoint of many of the district’s coaches, said he is “South Summit through and through.”
“I love stepping off a bus in green — that we now have to pay for — that says, ‘I’m here from South Summit and you better pack a lunch because we’re coming to play,’” he said.
But the district has had difficulty attracting and retaining teachers and coaches, and he pointed to the salaries of comparable districts.
“To buy a home in Kamas is $550,000,” the coach said. “Four percent on a $40,000 salary is $1,600. Canyons (School District) is raising $8,000 on $40,000. … I don’t know how we expect people to live here.”
He told the story of a fellow teacher who joined the district recently who had given up several days of his summer to help facilitate a leadership retreat in Moab for members of the high school student government, pointing to him as an example of how teachers should act. Despite having taught for more than 20 years, the teacher is making less than starting teachers make elsewhere, Bowen said.
At a tipping point
The meeting grew contentious at times, though many appeared to be frustrated with the reality of the situation rather than personally antagonistic. Sorenson called it one of the most disheartening he’d been a part of in his time with the district.
One parent pointed out the fee increases amount to more than the official total, as they are pressured to participate in fundraisers as well.
Woolstenhulme, the board president, said she shares the group’s frustration, but “at the end of the day, we have to have teachers.”
She also pointed to the problem of equalizing school aid around the state, which results in what she said is the district sending $300,000 annually to other districts.
“It’s very frustrating,” she said, noting that money could instead be used to pay teachers.
One coach estimated he’d spent $45,000 of his own money to coach. He said the only answer is to raise taxes, though he acknowledged it would put the board members in a tough spot.
“Do truth in taxation, raise taxes,” he told the officials. “Put it on the people. You’re putting it on the parents — put it on the people.”
Longtime coach and school board member Dan Eckert wondered whether the glory days were behind the district.
Eckert, pausing to collect himself, said one of his biggest regrets and embarrassments being on the board is that he can’t provide more money to teachers and sports.
“We don’t have the budget to be an elite program anymore,” Eckert said. “Right now we’re at a tipping point. We could stay where we are or we could fall off the cliff. I don’t think we’ll fall off the cliff — we have too many parents and coaches who care.”
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Most of the $5.1 million increase over last year’s budget is from an increase in grant funding for the Health Department.