Mara Momenee, 17, a junior at Bowsher High School, says, ‘I basically felt compelled’ to make known the feelings of students who did not want their athletics programs cut.
Whatever the Toledo Public Schools system decides to do with its sports programs, it was never going to affect Mara Momenee.
Big plans rumble over sports in TPS these days. After cuts that included freshman sports, an ad hoc committee has floated ways to bring those programs back, possibly through a private fund and powered by donations.
The usual officials populate the committee hearings: Superintendent Jerome Pecko, school board members Lisa Sobecki and Bob Vasquez, and athletic director Ed Scrutchins.
But at committee meetings and behind-the-scenes pitches to community members and potential donors is also Mara, a rare in-person advocate for student interests.
The plan to develop an athletic committee had percolated for months when Bowsher High School’s junior class president and captain of the girls’ varsity soccer team inadvertently stepped into the fray.
In November, she and other advocates for a potentially imperiled Bowsher junior varsity soccer team implored school board members not to cut the program.
Although not on the JV squad, Mara said she stood up for the team because she knew the value of a strong athletics program, both to the students and the school.
“I basically felt compelled to make our concerns known,” Mara said.
Board members were impressed and asked her to join the planned committee, which in meetings since then has crafted ways to strengthen sports in the district.
No decisions have been made in the committee, let alone by the full board, so it’s too early to say if any positive effects have been made.
But a leading idea to strengthen sports is to pull in the Toledo Community Foundation. The idea goes like this:
TPS would set up a fund under the foundation’s umbrella. The foundation would handle administrative duties, and a fund board would govern how the money is raised and distributed.
The foundation runs hundreds of funds, President Keith Burwell said, and is well set up to help.
There’s another reason to have the fund affiliated with the community foundation.
Mr. Vasquez said there’s a sentiment that the community would not feel comfortable donating to a TPS-run foundation, assuming that money could be shifted to cover salaries or other costs. The fund would give assurances to potential donors that the money was dedicated to sports.
When Mr. Vasquez went to Mr. Burwell about the idea, he brought Mara, 17, whom the foundation president called refreshing.
She talked about being a role model and being a part of a team and how high school students just want to feel that they belong.
She didn’t talk about helping herself. “I wish I could bottle her up,” Mr. Burwell said, “and put her in about 500,000 people.”
Cincinnati, which set up a sports foundation in 2004, would serve as somewhat of a model, although Mr. Burwell said public school districts across the country are searching for ways to pay for their athletic programs.
With states cutting school funding, districts ditched sports to mitigate classroom cuts. TPS cut sports to close huge budget deficits, but officials suspect the move cost the district students.
Mr. Burwell said he’s talking to two other area districts about establishing similar funds.
To bring back all the TPS sports cut in recent years would cost about $240,000 a year, said Brian Murphy, an assistant superintendent.
Mr. Vasquez said he doesn’t want the fund to stop there but to help strengthen programs, maybe by supplementing salaries for coaches to attract and keep top talent.
Mr. Vasquez has held several meetings to try to establish seed donations for a potential fund. He’s brought Mara to help his pitch.
Other changes may be on their way.
The district may add or raise fees to play sports, the so-called “pay-to-play” strategy. The sale of naming rights to field houses and stadiums was discussed. And the City League, diminished by the defection of Catholic schools, may undergo a transformation, either by an infusion of independent districts into the league or a merger.
If the fund were to be approved by the committee and the board of education, debate still exists on how money should be solicited. District officials say donors could support individual schools or particular sports — such as, say, freshman football — but not a single school’s program. There’s a concern some schools would field teams while others suffer.
That’s not how Mara wants it. Donors should be able to support the programs they choose, she said.
Decisions will be made soon, district officials said. An announcement is likely by the end of the summer.
“I don’t want to say we’ll have the funding in place to bring back these programs,” Mr. Murphy said, “but we want to have a direction.”
Whatever is decided, the experience has been a formative one for Mara, who said she has developed an interest in politics, not through a thirst for influence but a desire to stand up for what she thinks is important.
“When you believe in something that much and you want to be heard,” she said, “you have to do it.”
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.
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