Metro high schools struggle to fund expensive athletic programs

Sunday, March 27, 2011 at 10:05pm
Jude Ferrara/SouthComm 

Baseball season for coach Brian Mells’ Hillwood High School Hilltoppers doesn’t begin with swings at the tee, fielding grounders or rounding bases. Rather, the sound of a cash register on steamy Friday nights in August at the school’s football games — where the team sells popcorn and sodas — has replaced the first ding of an oversized aluminum bat as the clarion call for the young student-athletes. 

From there, it’s manning concession stands at basketball games. Car washes supplement team income. Proceeds go toward the essentials: baseballs, hats, uniforms, catchers’ equipment. 

“If we didn’t do anything, we would have the same uniforms from last year, dingy and worn out,” Mells said. “We wouldn’t have any baseballs. We probably couldn’t have our season.” 

Fundraisers like Hillwood’s have boosted athletics programs for years. But for the 24 percent of Metro high school students who participated in a sport last year, they’ve become essential to funding even the most basic elements of public-school sports programs.

Alongside general economic strife, the past few years have seen increases in the cost of football helmets, uniforms, soccer goals, referees, security officers, ambulances at ball games, transportation to and from road games, and not-so-obvious things like meeting pole-vault pit specifications. And those price tags have caught the attention of high school principals, who are left to lash together ever-dwindling sports budgets without the aid of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ district funds. 

On Thursday, Mayor Karl Dean and the Metro Nashville Board of Education are set to hold a hearing to discuss the district’s proposed $670.5 million budget for the next fiscal year, approved last week by the school board. While funding for coaches’ salaries and facility maintenance are included, individual high schools are left to carry as many as 20 sports teams and produce games on their own dimes. Schools rely on revenue from event gate receipts, concession stands and fundraisers to bankroll programs that aren’t cheap. 

This funding arrangement for athletics is nothing new for Metro schools, and it’s employed by almost every other system in Tennessee, according to Bernard Childress, executive director of the Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association. It’s also not exclusive to sports. Marching bands, Spanish clubs and honor societies also scrape together money to keep afloat — increasingly in the last decade. 

But none of that supplants the simple fact that funding sports is a challenge. Representatives of Director of Schools Jesse Register’s High School Principals Advisory Council delivered that message at a recent gathering; Register relayed the concern to school board members earlier this month. According to a City Paper survey of principals from across the county, the situation is getting worse. 

“We’ve been cutting anywhere between 10 and 30 percent — it depends which sport you’re talking about — each year for the past three or four years,” Overton High School Principal Shuler Pelham said. 

“You look at sports that tend to use up more money, and you try to find ways to make your cuts there,” he said, adding that the most expensive sports are football, soccer and volleyball. 

Cuts often come in the form of recycling uniforms, shin guards and balls. 

“Typically in high school, the football team is the only sport that is self-sustaining,” Pelham said. “If you can get your football team to pay for itself, you’re in pretty good shape. I don’t know if all schools can do that or not.” 

Complicating matters further is a recent state law that banned the sale of sugary soft drinks and candy in vending machines. The measure is great for the health of students, but it has led to fewer students buying snacks, which drains from a revenue pool some schools use to help fund sports programs. 

“When that law went into effect, we saw about a 50 to 75 percent decrease in our revenue from vending machines,” Pelham said. “That’s what has really hurt. Now, schools that were staying afloat can’t do that, and the schools that were just getting by are devastated.” 

Principals are also finding that the financial well-being of their sports programs is largely dependent on the success of their teams. Like fans of professional or collegiate teams, everyone loves a winner, even in high school. More wins for a school’s football team — by far the largest revenue sports generator — tends to mean more fans in the seats, boosting receipts. 

“It creates a hardship for us when we’re constantly trying to come up with creative ways to raise funds for athletics, because those programs are so important to help keep kids grounded in school, and it’s really an important part of the high school experience,” Hunters Lane Principal Susan Kessler said. “The fact that we struggle — and it’s not one school, it’s funding for school sports in general [that] is really a problem. There’s simply not enough money to go around.” 

What’s most troubling about the state of sports in Metro schools, though, is that there’s no real getting around the financial dilemma. With cash-strapped budget cycles the norm, everyone recognizes that precious dollars are best placed in classroom instruction. Right now, the district is already asking the mayor and Metro Council for a $37 million increase in funds over the current fiscal year, and adding
an appropriation for sports isn’t possible. It seems sports programs will continue treading water. 

“If we had plenty of resources, the answer would be simple,” said Register, who acknowledges he’s heard these concerns from principals. “We’d support the programs the way they need to be supported. But at this point in time, there’s just not really a way to increase what we’re doing. We’re trying to hold onto what we have.” 


Across the nation, high school sports are feeling the same pinch. Pick up a newspaper and you’ll read the occasional horror story of school systems dropping athletics programs altogether, a scenario found in Toledo, Ohio, among several others. 

A less draconian approach to making ends meet is a pay-to-play program, where young student-athletes offer fees to sign up for sports. But in a district where 75 percent of the 78,000 students qualify for federal free and reduced-price lunches, Register said pay-to-play isn’t an option. Educators, principals and coaches share that sentiment uniformly. 

Chris Henson, the school district’s finance director, said the district paid for less field and turf maintenance at high schools this fiscal year than it has in the past, but he added that the district also replaced five lighting systems at football stadiums across the county. Several principals contacted by The City Paper  said their coaches are the ones overseeing fertilizing football and soccer fields, and maintaining general upkeep. 

Henson said requiring schools to pay for players’ uniforms, equipment, game referees and other items has been a “very long-standing” practice by the district. He said he couldn’t break down the level of funds going directly to sports facility maintenance because dollars are lumped in with other utility costs. 

Robbin Wall, hired two years ago as the principal of McGavock High School, the largest public school in the state, said a school’s fan base tends to reflect the financial soundness of its athletics programs. And recurring costs — like reconditioning football equipment — can be backbreakers for smaller schools. 

“Every year, you’re required to send in your helmets and shoulder pads and things like that for football, just for them to have a sticker put on them and for them to be verified they’re safe to use the next year,” Wall said. “Depending on the size of the school, you could be spending anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000 just on the reconditioning of athletic equipment for football. It’s a tough situation.” 

Wall said basketball referees earn a minimum of $80 per game, which puts the school down $240 before fans enter the gym. He said fan support isn’t always there. This year, McGavock couldn’t afford to buy the team’s basketball shoes. The school ordered them collectively, but the kids doled out the cash. Asked if ticket sales are enough to get by, Wall said they only cover the basics. He said he understands the economics but also suggested Metro could be at a disadvantage with other districts when it comes to athletics. 

“If we’re ever going to do things like have a weight room facility for all of our kids who participate in all of our athletic programs, to give them the opportunity to compete on an equal playing field, it’s difficult to do whenever we can’t provide the equipment and things that our kids need to keep things at a somewhat equitable situation,” he said. “I know we’re all wishing somehow we could have some type of established athletic budget to start the year, so we could know every year what you have to spend.”

Off Dickerson Road at Hunters Lane, the story is the same. 

“It really is problematic for us to be able to pay for the things we need to pay for,” Kessler, the principal, said. “There are so many expenses that are non-negotiable expenses … When you think about just transporting a football team 30 miles away with the buses –– that ends up usually being two or three buses –– you have to pay for the bus and the driver. When you’re traveling, you’re spending money, too, and you definitely don’t have money coming in.” 


Steve Chauncy, principal at Hillwood and a TSSAA board member, said he’s floated the idea of a revenue-sharing program to disburse funds evenly among Metro high schools. He said it would be no different than what the Southeastern Conference does at the collegiate level. 

“A lot of years, one school may be high with great attendance and another school could be low,” Chauncy said. “We could take the profits and maybe split them equally. But there’s pros and cons to that.” 

Register said he’s discussed the concept with Chauncy. 

“That’s something we could consider, but principals would have to come together on that,” Register said. “I would want there to be a consensus among the principals to do any kind of cross-sharing like that. It would be different if we had some schools that made a significant amount of money, that made more than what they needed, but I really don’t think we’re in that situation.” 

Pelham, from Overton, said principals have approached Register and his administration about having the district pay for security at sporting events, which tends to be one of the highest costs. “We’re hoping we might be able to work out something a little differently there because essentially you’re hiring off-duty police officers,” he said. “That’s expensive.” 

Register said he knows the district could help out by picking up expenses like security, but it can’t increase the budget to do so this year. 

School board member Mark North, who frequently cites the value of school athletics — so much so that at last week’s board meeting, he read off every Metro school alumni participating in the ongoing NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament — said he finds the situation troubling. 

“A lot of the concerns come from the decline of attendance at events,” he said. “I would like to see an increase in that attendance. We may have to find other ways to fund athletics.” 

North, who represents parts of Madison where he grew up, wants to encourage more people who aren’t directly associated with public schools to come out to games and events. 

“Parents, students and staff aren’t enough attendance-wise,” he said. 

It’s easy to romanticize the days when high school sports seemed to play a larger role in local entertainment. In Nashville there is truth in that. There was a time when the Tennessee Titans and Nashville Predators did not exist, when Friday nights at the football field or Tuesday nights in packed basketball gyms were the hot tickets. 

“I still think there’s a market for it if it can be sort of self-sufficient and fund itself,” North said. “That would be best. But I don’t know if it can anymore.”  

Filed under: City News

26 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 4:06

Just get rid of school sports programs in their entirety; 76% of students do not play high school sports anyway. Let the students do push-ups, pull ups and run works for the US Army; it will work in the schools. Fewer concussions, lawsuits, vandalism and budget shortfalls would result. Schools are there to educate the minds of all the students, not to act as training schools for a few future professional athletes....we seem to forget that.

By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 4:53

Funding the high school debate team costs a fraction of what it takes to fund any of the school sports programs and is in keeping with the school's primary mission - education.

Of course, we Americans do not normally idolize those "smart kids", like we do the gifted's our culture; it's who we are. We value things like physical strength, stamina, aggressiveness and dominance. Rude and pushy is OK in America.

We do not seem to value the ability to reason, communicate or critically analyze in the same way that we value athletic prowess....we are a nation of jocks and jock-watchers.

By: treehugger7 on 3/28/11 at 6:35

Amen, Loner! Our schools are for education that leads to realistic professions, not giving a lot of kids false hope that they could be the next Eddie George. Professional sports are downsizing (or should be). Our scarce school funds should be used for real education.

By: richgoose on 3/28/11 at 6:39

The cost of athletic equipment is a mere fractional fraction of the cost of trying to change the culture of the underclass.

By: BigPapa on 3/28/11 at 7:16

Go the European "club" model.. they have sports but they are not associted with the school. Then you dont have to worry about hiring coaches that dont want to teach, making grades in order to play, etc.. Soccer and softball and baseball to a certain degree have moved in this direction with the travel teams.

By: Community-carl-... on 3/28/11 at 7:21

Sadly, the schools' priorities simply reflect American culture's values. We are a society with misplaced values. This is why the US is slowly losing it's place as a superpower and world leader.

By: brrrrk on 3/28/11 at 8:52

As far as I'm concerned it's about time that the sports programs get hit by budget cuts. Why should we spend money on programs with little return on investment? For every one student that makes any kind of money in sports after leaving high school (or even college), I can show you a least 10 to 20 kids that can make some kind of money in the arts. And I'm tired of our school systems acting as the farm teams for professional sports.

By: Antisocialite on 3/28/11 at 9:27

I actually like BigPapa's idea here, the club model seems to be a pretty good alternative to making our schools pay for sports equipment at the cost of educational materials, especially in an economic climate like we have today.

As he already said, soccer, softball, and baseball are going in this direction, but he left out one other that I consider to be the most representative of the shift... basketball. It is common knowledge these days in the high school (and younger) basketball community that AAU basketball is the place to get recognized by college scouts, and play against top notch competition, not high school. This is mostly because of the country's demographic realities, one can hardly expect a kid in rural Appalachia to face the same level of competition, day in and day out, as a kid in New York City. The population distribution basically dictates that NYC will have a greater number of talented kids per square mile, and therefore better all-around talent level.

AAU alleviates this problem with it's extensive network of teams and tournaments that allow players from across the country to compete regularly, and by allowing teams to recruit from far and wide to put together the best teams they can. Both of these practices, by the way, are not encouraged (or banned) by the various state high school athletic bodies. Overall, I think this kind of model benefits everyone involved much more than the status quo.

By: yucchhii on 3/28/11 at 9:55

yucchhii I am soooo glad that most of these people that left comments were NOT in charge of school funding when I was in high school. They obviously would be good coworkers for mayor kark "DINK". DINK is nothing but a GREEDY LIAR!! As is with ANY POLITICIAN! No body can name ONE politician that has the interests of this USA in his heart!! If there is, why is he or she NOT in charge? Because the VOTING system DOES NOT WORK!!! POLITICIANS HAVE IT RIGGED!!! BUSH JR PROVED THAT!!! Besides, Again, I pint out...The city says "We don't have the money to put sand and salt on the roads when the black ice forms and we don't have the budget for snow plows...AHHhhh, BUT they have the money to build a convention center that NOBODY wants! Then they have the $$$$$$ to build an 800 room OMNI hotel behind the Country music hall of fame and recently are talking about a new baseball stadium for the Nashville sounds. BUT, they don't have the budget for the roads and now the school athletic programs....VERY INTERESTING mayor "DINK!" You are showing your TRUE colors as a politician...YOUR A THIEF AND A LIAR!!!!

By: mg357 on 3/28/11 at 10:04

In view of the recent stats revealed by the secretary of education which capitalizes on an 82% failure in our nation's schools; wouldn't one think that athletics should be far down the list of priorities? When you have a student at UT, yes UT; who sits in the lecture hall during class with his earphones engaged and pays no attention to the lecturer, makes a 30 on a biology test, gets a free ride on everything just because he's a starter on the basketball team these dicrepancies are overlooked. Give me a break; whatever happened to the notion that grades were factored into the athletic programs. Just exactly what kind of product are we culturing here? What say you?

By: BigPapa on 3/28/11 at 10:37

The discussion is HS sports, not college. That is a completely different set of circumstances. Athletics made my HS days very enjoyable, but... The AAU/Club model is superior. Imagine the Principal not having to worry about hiring a coach instead of a teacher, or dealing with athletic fields, or athletes having to worry about gpa (thats between the kids and parent), schools being relieved of the liability, travel, etc.... it's a win- win.

By: mg357 on 3/28/11 at 10:45

The 82% failure rate is for the public school system BigPapa. It was reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal which I found amusing since the students there faild 4 out of 5 subjects last year.

By: mg357 on 3/28/11 at 10:45


By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 10:48

Mg357, hey, a few years ago the Mormon state was practicing a form of apartheid in their collegiate athletic programs....remember Brigham Young and the NAACP and the NCAA? Those followers of Joseph Smith finally realized that white men can't they changed their dogma to match the realities.

Brandon Davies, who happens to be black, was recently kicked off their saintly basketball team, for having pre-marital sex....apparently, the BYU powers-that-be DO permit pre-marital sex, so long as it is sex without a partner. Those LDS folks are rugged individualists, who believe in taking matters into their own hands.

By: mg357 on 3/28/11 at 11:01

Loner; Who cares if the guy can pole vault 15 feet in the air. If he can't read it would appear his education was for naught is my point. If you choose to play pro sports or otherwise, your GPA retention should come into play, I mean after all wasn't the GPA lowered to accomodate such as this which is stupid. This makes our bastions of higher learning look incredibly stupid to the rest of the world don't you think?

By: BigPapa on 3/28/11 at 11:17

Colleges pimped themselves out a long time ago in order to get the big time sports entertainment dollars. At least now they're more blatant about that, they just cheat and hope they dont get caught. One day the big schools will ditch the NCAA and set up a league where they make their own rules.

By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 11:58

I don't know about any lowering of GPA standards, 357-magnum, but I agree, if a kid can't read and if he or she is capable of learning how, then I'd agree, his or her education has been fundamentally incomplete.

BigPapa is right, the big schools sold out to the mass entertainment industry long's part of the circus in the term, "bread and circus" keeps the masses occupied and keeps the school's logo out their.

By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 11:59

Sorry, homophone error..." out there", not "out their". Homophonophobia is now setting in....need meds.

By: mg357 on 3/28/11 at 12:17

Hey Loner; Isn't the GPA around 2.5 and wasn't it higher not long ago; say around 3.5 or close?

By: Antisocialite on 3/28/11 at 12:26

BigPapa said:
One day the big schools will ditch the NCAA and set up a league where they make their own rules.

I think it's more likely that the NCAA buckles and changes their own rules to maintain relevance, but either way it's the same end result, more lenient rules on athletes so that the big sports programs can continue to be the merchandising cash cows that they are now.

Back to high school sports though... I was a high school athlete, so I am not saying any of this as some bitter kid who didn't make the team. BigPapa is again correct that it's a win-win, by allowing school administrators to focus on matters of education, and effectively 'outsourcing' the athletics to more athletic-minded stewards. There would, of course, be the initial shock of losing community fixtures like high school sports, but I suspect that many teams would continue to live on as a city or county club team. Some wouldn't, but c'est la vie.

By: Captain Nemo on 3/28/11 at 12:40

Excuse for coming in late.

After reading some of the post I don’t think that Wilson or Spalding and like companies will let their bread and butter stop playing bal so easy. There are too many moms and dads that dreams of super star children, to let this go to the sideline.

This want go away anytime soon.

By: brrrrk on 3/28/11 at 12:48

Captain Nemo said

"There are too many moms and dads that dreams of super star children, to let this go to the sideline."

Dream is right, and this is part of the problem. Less than 1% of students athletes ever make it to the pros. If parents (and the kids) really understood that, chances might be that they'd actually consider getting their kids more interesting in the "three r's".

By: Antisocialite on 3/28/11 at 1:25

brrrrk said:
Less than 1% of students athletes ever make it to the pros. If parents (and the kids) really understood that, chances might be that they'd actually consider getting their kids more interesting in the "three r's".

I don't think that parents and students are ignorant of this fact, I think it is the mass delusion that many Americans have about where they stand in the social hierarchy, on a number of different issues. Much like the 19% of Americans who sincerely believe that they are part of the top 1% of wage earners, these people severely overestimate how good they (or their kids) really are. Part of this may have a lot to do with the uneven population distribution that I described earlier. As I said, in more rural areas where the overall talent level is not as high a student athlete may look like a superstar, but when compared with the top level of talent in the country that same student is simply outmatched.

By: brrrrk on 3/28/11 at 1:39

Antisocialite said

"I don't think that parents and students are ignorant of this fact, I think it is the mass delusion that many Americans have about where they stand in the social hierarchy, on a number of different issues."

It's called the Horatio Alger myth.

By: Loner on 3/28/11 at 1:41

Anti-socialite....i'm not bitter because I did not make the team; I never tried out...too scrawny.

So, I took up the tenor saxophone and played in the football band. While my classmates were sustaining concussions, abrasions, contusions, dislocations and compound fractures, young Loner was cozying up to the girls in the band and enjoying the panty-shots provided by the cheerleaders.

We play the cards we are dealt.

Later, when I went to Cornell, in Ithaca, NY, they contacted me, to be a coxswain for the 8-man heavyweight crew team...the cox steers the shell, calls out the cadence, issues orders to the jocks...from launching the expensive rowing shells to recovering them and getting them back on their racks. I had a wonderful and unique experience as a cox...Cayuga Lake can be beautiful and also terrifying.

I left all that and joined the US Army, in retrospect, I think that I made the wrong choice.....hey, it's ancient history....I'm still on a leave of absence for military service at theory I could return....I'd love to command one of those shells again...I'd be the oldest coxswain in history, but that's OK, to be a good coxswain, you don't need strength, you need balls and a big mouth...that I've still got..

By: Antisocialite on 3/28/11 at 2:03

Thank you brrrrk, but although similar I think there is a subtle difference in what you and I are talking about. As I understand it, the Horatio Alger myth refers to what most here would call the 'American Dream,' or the belief that all one must do to achieve prominence is work hard. What I am referring to is the tendency for those who are relatively talented (or rich) to confuse themselves as being in the top 1% in the nation. It's a classic big fish in a small pond scenario, because these people are in the top 1% of their own small communities in the rural/ semi-rural Midwest or Southeast they falsely believe that they are on the same level as the insanely talented (or rich) people that make up the true top 1%.