Columbia County schools budget plan includes middle school sports

Sports programs in Columbia County middle schools are safe, for now.

Last week, school officials proposed cutting track, junior varsity softball, junior varsity baseball, soccer, golf and tennis from middle schools as a cost-saving measure.

During a budget study session Tuesday, the school board decided to keep the programs for at least the next school year while a study is conducted on the viability of all athletic programs.

Board Chairwoman Regina Buccafusco said the study likely will focus on costs for all athletic programs, including high schools, and seek alternative ways to provide athletics for interested middle-schoolers.

School officials are looking to trim next school year's budget to offset a $6 million drop in state funding.

Cutting some middle school sports would save the system about $87,000 in coaching supplements alone. The school system could save even more by eliminating the purchase of equipment for those sports and travel expenses to games, Superintendent Charles Nagle has said.

The superintendent expressed dismay at "the many" e-mails and complaints he has received from parents protesting the sports cuts when no one has complained about instructional cuts.

If next year's cuts are included, the system has lost about $21 million from the state since 2007, Nagle said.

To make up revenue deficits, the school system has eliminated hundreds of teaching and paraprofessional positions, furloughed teachers, increased class sizes, and, most recently, eliminated Spanish-language instruction from middle schools.

"That (middle school sports) is the only thing everyone in the county focused on, and that disappoints me," Nagle said.

As an alternative to eliminating middle school sports, board member Roxanne Whitaker suggested cutting high school wrestling, lacrosse and swimming programs because not every school has them.

School trustee Mike Sleeper said he would not vote to eliminate a sport from one school just because another school was unwilling or unable to field a team.

Sleeper said he spoke last week with Columbia County Recreation Department officials on this issue and was told that the department likely could handle any participant increases caused by the loss of middle school sports. Considering that, Sleeper said, the board should consider cutting all middle school athletics.

"We can't keep cutting from the classroom and continue to expect a good product," he said.

However, he moved to approve the proposed budget with the sports expenses included. The other board members voted against, saying they wanted more time to examine the budget.

The board likely will vote on the budget May 26.

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