Considering the massive cuts school districts are facing, athletics funded by the Washoe County School District likely won't look the same for the upcoming school year. That's because the WCSD is gearing up for a $75 million shortfall in each of the next two years. Athletics have been left largely untouched over the past four years when the district has cut just a combined $73 million.
WCSD Superintendent Heath Morrison outlined a plan earlier this week that called for $35 million in cuts, but if the district indeed receives that worst-case scenario and does have to cut another $40 million, it's unlikely middle and high school sports could remain untouched.
“That's exactly the way I'd say it,” Morrison said in a phone interview Thursday morning. “We're facing a $75 million shortfall this year and next year. I've come out and said we're prepared to cut $35 million and that still leaves another $40 million. If that's the way the numbers stay, then basically we'll have to look at all areas.”
That's the bad news. There is some relative good news for sports fans. Morrison seems to be a proponent of extra-curricular activities.
“It's not going to be straight percentage in cuts for every department. We're going to try and be strategic," he said. "Last year we made $37 million in cuts and those did not impact sports, music or talented and gifted. I think those programs are important, but at the level of cuts we're talking about right now, everything is on the table."
District athletic officials have been doing their homework. Ken Cass is the WCSD's student services coordinator. He oversees athletics for the district and months ago was given the task of working up a cost-benefit analysis of nearly every athletic program the district funds. He admitted cuts are coming to athletics, but stopped short of saying how deep or citing specific programs.
“There is for certain going to be some athletic cuts,” Cass said. “I don't know exactly what. That will depend largely on how everything shakes out from the Legislature. We have 'line itemed' what everything costs and been asked for participation numbers. They've broken it down to how much everything costs
per kid for each program and will make determinations from there.
"I'm sure I'll be brought in the loop somewhere along the line but the (cuts) are made by decision makers above my pay level."
A reduction to middle school sports and funding reductions for after school swimming, along with golf and skiing, are already part of the nearly $35 million initial cut proposal. The WCSD offers middle school athletic programs in cross country, basketball, wrestling, volleyball and track and field. It is unclear which of those programs would be affected under a middle school sports reduction.
"It could be a number of things," Shaw Middle School principal Gina Leonard said. "Some sports could stay and some sports could go. All sports could stay and seasons get shorter which would mean less travel expense. Maybe the number of kids allowed to participate goes down."
Leonard did say that no matter how the reduction shakes out, it won't have a positive impact on students.
"Athletics are after school programs that are healthy," Leonard said. "They enlist physical activity and keep kids out of trouble. They build up school spirit and give an incentive to get good grades and be in school every day.
"If you cut sports, fewer kids will have a connection to school. The more motivations we have to get kids to school, the better off we are … From what was announced earlier this week, there will be a reduction. We certainly don't want to see them eliminated."
Athletic Directors' Outlook
It is still a very big grey area where the remainder of cuts would come from. Most high school athletic officials aren't sticking their head in the sand to even avoid any thoughts of further cuts. They are expecting cuts and changes to how they do business.
"At this point it could be anything," Reed High athletic director Ron Coombs said. "It's hard for everybody because we haven't seen a budget yet … I assume, and I think everybody has to assume, there will be cuts somewhere. Every coach I've spoken with understands that. We know it's coming. That's the nature of the game for now."
Morrison spoke at a meeting of the district's high school athletic administrators earlier this month. Despite impending budget doom, most at the meeting left with the belief Morrison holds athletics in high regard.
"I felt like what he told us is the district is going to have to make dramatic cuts in order to balance the budget," said Art Anderson, the athletic director at Spanish Springs High. "But that he'll do everything in his power to not affect athletics and other activities, that he understands the value of athletics in keeping kids coming to school and motivated to be at school."
Sparks High AD Rob Kittrell and Coombs said they heard the same message. Morrison reiterated that in Thursday's interview, but stressed athletic budgets will still be examined and may yet see changes. The superintendent added athletics help a lot of at-risk kids succeed.
"I think some people are so passionate about sports that they'd want to cut math, English and science before sports," Morrison said. "I'm not going down that road.
"There are other people who say 'just cut sports. They are nice to have but we don't really need them.' So I ask them, 'do you want to improve graduation rates?' When they say yes, I say 'then we can't cut high school sports.'
"'We've got a lot of kids that start as athletic students and finish as student athletes. I believe sports are something we have to have, not a luxury. But at the same time, they're not untouchable."
That's a good sentiment for local athletic directors to hear as well as athletes and their parents. Kittrell believes there is proof to what Morrison preaches. He stressed that athletes at Sparks High do much better on average than students there who don't participate in athletics.
"We just got our proficiency results back. I went through and looked at all our varsity football players," Kittrell said. "They're all on track to graduate and that's way above the percentage overall for our school. That right there shows the carrot of playing a sport or being in the band or a club, whatever activity it is that keeps them in school and showing up every day, is valuable."
The three athletic directors from Sparks high schools said they really didn't know what to expect if further athletic cuts are made. The biggest theme among the three seemed to be that they'd all try to do the best with what they had and react optimistically once they got more information.
"I have no idea what to expect," Kittrell said. "Everything is so tight-lipped at the district level with what's going to happen. I try not to worry too much. It's out of our control. I do know I've paid more attention to the Legislature than I ever have before. If we know something by Mid-June that would be the best-case scenario. It's going to be a political battle."
Morrison first referenced his $35 million cut proposal at a town hall meeting Monday at Sparks' Robert Mitchell Elementary School, one of the district's oldest schools. It's the first of six such events scheduled over the next month. There will be one more hosted in Sparks, at Reed High at 6:30 p.m. on May 19.
Morrison is calculated in his purpose and timing of the meetings.
"I think there are dual purposes to the meetings," Morrison said. "I just believe in public education you need to get out into the public and ask for feedback. I'm a big believer in community input. Secondly, for whatever reason, people don't get real interested until you tell them what you're deciding to cut.
"If you don't let people know until you've made the final decisions, there's not a lot of options at that point."
Morrison admitted that he'd love for community members to come to the town hall meetings, hear about the cuts and be devastated. He'd like them to go to their state legislators and tell them to better fund education.
"If you feel that what you've heard is unacceptable then talk to your lawmakers. If people say to their lawmakers 'these cuts are unacceptable,' their lawmakers will listen. If they don't hear anything, then lawmakers will think it must be OK."
Morrison knows athletics are a hot-button issue. He said he's been given advice that includes telling parents/taxpayers that the district is going to cut higher profile prep sports programs, adding that could leave people flooding the capital with complaints.
"I've been told to say we're cutting high school football and basketball and then people would storm Carson City, but I don't believe in that. I'm not a rattle-the-saber or storm-the-Bastille type of guy."
So what will happen in the way of cuts and athletic cuts specifically? There will be plenty of district administrators playing the waiting game to find out.
"It's not that we're walking around in the dark," said Leonard, one of the district's 11 middle school principals. "It's just that we're waiting. The information given out is all we know. We're just waiting, and patience is a virtue."