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Published: Sunday, 3/7/2010

Abolishing TPS sports would be catastrophic

There is the perception that Toledo is a dying city.

Read the headlines. The mayor and city council are grappling with a $48 million deficit. We have always been the tail on the auto industry's dog, and it ain't waggin' much these days. Unemployment is up, wealth is down. Houses aren't selling, except at a loss. Some are under foreclosure; others simply abandoned. Entire office buildings stand empty against the downtown skyline. Costs of living soar; paychecks at the very best tread water. And that's for those of us lucky enough to still get one.

Somebody once said that the health of a city can be determined by the number of cranes hovering high over construction sites. Seen any lately? We built a new bridge and we built a new arena and that's about it for cranes during the past decade. This is a city tearing down, not building up.

But we fight the perception because a city can't really die, can it? Not in the literal, throw-dirt-over-it sense. But a city can lose its relevance. It exists, after all, primarily as a place to live and work. When the latter becomes problematic and the former becomes economically impossible, well, what happens then? Does the last person out turn off the lights?

I don't know. I'm not an economist, politician, or sociologist. But I'm pretty sure that if you want to see a dead city walking, then eliminate school sports.

Toledo Public Schools has a deficit of its own, a $30 million shortfall. Simplistically, you could suggest that the only public entity more poorly managed in recent years than our city's school system is our city itself. That's a helluva parlay for any community.

TPS has announced it has two plans of attack - $30 million in cuts should an income tax on the May 4 ballot fail; $17.5 million in cuts should the tax be approved by voters. Contained in one or both of those plans is a $3.5 million savings from shutting down athletics.

I'm guessing that the athletics solution is part of the $30 million package and not part of the $17.5 million package. But it's just a guess at this point. Nobody's talking specifics.

That would follow the normal scare-tactic approach that school systems have taken for years when going to the voters. It is a combination of economic and psychological blackmail and it usually works. We might not care so much if our school district can afford new textbooks, can give deserving teachers raises, or whether it's rated excellent or effective, but by God we want little Ricky to play football on Friday nights.

Since this slab of prose is playing right into the blackmailers' hands, we must acknowledge that scare tactics may not work this time. Voters are tired of tax increases and, frankly, are scared by them. The term "fixed income" used to apply almost exclusively to retirees and seniors. Now, it applies to just about anybody whose title doesn't include CEO. Schools have been using athletics to yell "fire" in the crowded theater for so long that a cash-strapped, hope-strapped citizenry might just figure it's time to see how high the flames burn.

It would be catastrophic. And not just for the kids and the schools. What about the city of Toledo?

There would be more flight of student-athletes and their families to the suburbs, to the gyms and stadiums in Washington Local and Springfield and Maumee, among others. More empty houses and empty storefronts and depressed neighborhoods and a declining tax base in Toledo. More kids on street corners with nothing to occupy after-school hours. More reasons for people moving into the area to ignore the city as a residence. Shrinking enrollment and shrinking test scores in city schools.

We wrote a couple days ago about Manny May, the girls' basketball coach at Waite. For the 60 or 90 minutes between the end of school and the start of practice, his players attend mandatory study table or tutorial sessions. Why?

"They're not going to go home and do their homework," May said.

Athletic eligibility is a powerful carrot that results in learning. May is by no means the only coach in TPS buildings who gooses the educational process. He just happened to be the one I was writing about. There are surely dozens like him, but without athletics there are no coaches. Teachers may disagree, but more character is built and more promising young citizens are polished through extracurricular activities after school hours than overwhelmed educators can accomplish between the first bell and the last.

If we provide the minimum, we will reap the minimum. This goes for schools and cities alike. Look at it that way and $3.5 million for school athletics seems like a cheap price tag. Can we afford not to spend it?

I mentioned earlier that a city exists as a place to live and work. It also exists as a place to learn, a place to grow and take those steps from childhood to adulthood. It exists as a place for neighborhoods to come together and rally behind a common cause, like games.

The city of Toledo and the city's schools landed in their own predicaments in their own ways. Maybe they can solve their problems. But if they go down, they'll go down together.

Abolish school athletics? That's a dead city walking.

Contact Blade sports columnist

Dave Hackenberg at:

dhack@theblade.com

or 419-724-6398



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