Budget cut a hard blow to extracurricular athletics

Fox Rok Athletic Association basketball commissioner Joe Grant instructs 10-year-old girls before a drill at the Fox Chase School. He now must tell parents the program is suspended.
Fox Rok Athletic Association basketball commissioner Joe Grant instructs 10-year-old girls before a drill at the Fox Chase School. He now must tell parents the program is suspended. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Posted: February 07, 2012

Hundreds of city kids learn passing, dribbling, and shooting in evening and Saturday basketball games played on the worn floor of the Fox Chase School gym.

But after a Philadelphia School District decision to shut buildings on weekends and close earlier on weeknights - a move affecting more than 12,000 people - Fox Rok Athletic Association basketball commissioner Joe Grant was busy Monday explaining to players' parents why their season may be abruptly over.

"It's devastating news," said Grant, who coaches two teams. "We're not just talking about guys going into schools to shoot some baskets. We're talking about parents who paid for their kids to be in basketball leagues."

Staring down a $61 million budget gap that must be closed by June, the district is moving to save $2.8 million in utilities, personnel, and overtime costs through the building closures. A document prepared by the Recreation Department for City Council and other officials counted 12,086 people, the vast majority students, whose programs would be curtailed.

District programs and activities - games, practices, and academic courses - will not be affected, spokesman Fernando Gallard said, as individual schools already pay late-night and weekend building usage fees to cover the district's costs. Outside groups that have made arrangements to pay for after-hours use will not lose their space, either.

Programs that operate through the city Department of Recreation will be hardest hit. Organizations like Fox Rok, Fairmount Soccer, the Overbrook Monarchs, and the Walnut Hill Community Association have long used schools free for activities like basketball and indoor soccer.

Buildings will be closed on weekends effective Saturday. Beginning Monday, nonschool activities and programs must end at 7:30 p.m. so buildings can close at 8.

The pushback has already started. Fox Rok parents spent Monday writing letters and calling local politicians to voice their displeasure. With four weeks left in the season, Grant's teams have nowhere to play their games.

"Let us finish out the season," Grant said. "We're only talking a few weeks, then we'll figure out next season."

Mayor Nutter acknowledged Monday that the closures would affect thousands and said the city was "taking a much closer look at estimated savings."

But, Nutter said, "I think a proposal like that is indicative of just how difficult a situation the School District is in."

The decision works against the city's policy over the last year of expanding evening recreation activities for young people as a way to fight crime. Councilwoman Maria Quiñones Sánchez - a leading advocate for increasing the city's funding of schools - said, "We cannot make short-term decisions which go counter to our on-the-ground reality.

"With all the youth violence, can we afford to cut thousands of young people off right now?" Sánchez said.

State Reps. Brendan and Kevin Boyle (D., Phila.) urged district leaders to look elsewhere for cuts and called the move a "political ploy."

"It will have a ripple effect across the community, putting a huge number of programs at risk of being eliminated and literally leaving thousands of children out in the cold."

The district shouldn't be in this spot, but the superintendent and School Reform Commission responsible for the current fiscal mess are no longer in power, said Councilman Bill Green, who has been critical of the district in the past.

Instead, Green said, the new SRC is made up of people who are "earnest and doing their job" and "now have no choice but to do things that we wouldn't, couldn't, otherwise contemplate. And I'm afraid that this is just the beginning of a situation that's going to get far worse."

That worries Tom Smyth, president of the Holy Terrors Youth Organization in Mayfair.

Smyth oversees teams that play at Lincoln, Washington and Northeast High Schools - "hundreds and hundreds" of youths every Saturday, and 30 teams of older students who practice after 8 p.m. during the week. He hopes the district will reverse its decision.

"These leagues have only a few weeks left," Smyth said. "There's no other gyms available, and the kids are very upset. This is shortsighted on the district's part."

The district has already made deep cuts in personnel, programs, and school budgets. On Friday, it let 90 school police officers go, as well as some regional and central office staffers.

More cuts have been proposed but not implemented, including reducing the number of school psychologists and ending spring sports, instrumental music, gifted programs, and bilingual counseling assistants.

Contact staff writer Kristen Graham at 215-854-5146 or kgraham@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @newskag. Read her blog, "Philly School Files," at www.philly.com/schoolfiles

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