TEMPERANCE - There have not been very many contact drills yet for the few dozen Bedford High School football players braving the summer heat for practice.
But each of them, or their parents, has already taken a stiff hit - right in the wallet.
"I still think we shouldn't have to pay for it, but if they need the money, they need the money," senior starting quarterback Brandon Jackson said. He was talking about his school's decision last month to double the amount from $40 to $80 high school student athletes must pay this year to be part of their respective Kicking Mules teams.
As school districts across Michigan face a third straight year without an increase in per-pupil state education funding, many are looking again at "pay-to-play" fees to help keep athletics possible in an era when classroom teachers are being cut.
"It's certainly an option that [districts] are turning to," said Tom Rashid, associate director of the Michigan High School Athletic Association, the umbrella organization that oversees interscholastic sports in the state.
According to an October survey of 558 responding MHSAA member districts, 91 schools had levied participation fees on student athletes previously; 35 others were doing so for the first time last year; and 92 others were considering the practice.
Mr. Rashid said that education funding in Michigan "is in a worse crisis now than we had before Proposal A," and that he understands the intense budgetary constraints with which officials are dealing.
"We discourage it. We'd like schools to work as hard as they can to fully fund [athletics], but we understand the pressures are great," Mr. Rashid said.
The MSHAA survey shows districts charging a broad range of fees for athletic participation. Some schools have fees that range from $25 to as high as $275. Others charge differing fees based on the cost of the sport itself, with charges ranging from $40 for sports like cheerleading and golf to as high as $800 for ice hockey.
The survey also shows that many districts provide discounts, scholarships, or other financial help for those families
that might not be able to afford the fees, or set family maximums to ease the burden on those with multiple student-athletes.
"It's the same old problem, with the state not funding us," said Ted Magrum, Bedford's assistant superintendent for business and finance. "We faced a problem of having to cut expenses, which in the athletic department would have meant cutting a particular sport or a grade level out of a sport."
Mr. Magrum said the new fee rates approved last month by the school board doubled previous levies to $80 per sport at the high school and $40 at the junior high level. The maximum any family would pay is $240 per year, and outside financial assistance is available to those who might not be able to afford the fee.
Interscholastic sports at Bedford cost the district $721,000 last year, or about 1.6 percent of its total $43 million budget, Mr. Magrum said. Of that cost, $129,000 is offset by things like gate receipts and other revenues, and the rest - $592,000 - comes from the district's general fund.
Mr. Magrum said the idea for doubling the fees came from the athletic department itself, which chose the increase over eliminating sports in order to meet a 5 percent cut in its overall budget for the coming year.
Several other area schools have either instituted participation fees for the first time this year, or increased last year's fees. Some districts are considering the fees or have opted to hold the line at current levels.
Until his retirement on June 30, Ida Superintendent Herb Gabehart was the dean of local school administrators, having served in the small district in the heart of Monroe County for 27 years.
He said his district has had a pay-to-play fee of $45 for high school athletes and $25 for younger athletes for years.
"We've had three consecutive years of no fund increases from Lansing," Mr. Gabehart said. "If we face a fourth consecutive year, we'll probably have to reconsider increasing it."
Still, despite intense budgetary pressures that have led to elimination of programs, teacher layoffs, and other budgetary cuts, some school boards believe that participation fees are too much to ask for.
"It came up again this year," Mason Superintendent Marlene Mills said. "But our board of education feels strongly that our parents do so much in terms of volunteering and fund-raising for us that we shouldn't ask them to shoulder that burden also."
Contact Larry P. Vellequette at: