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Killing sports to save money is a game nobody wins
Killing sports to save money is a game nobody wins

Not again.

A local division has mounted a challenge to public-school sports, suggesting the extracurriculars are an appendage that can be easily hacked off.

Last year, officials in Virginia Beach City Public Schools considered ending junior varsity sports before they buckled to opposition from parents and students.

Now, Chesapeake has floated this idea: Superintendent James Roberts says the division must consider ending interscholastic sports at its 10 middle schools, or at least institute a "pay-to-play" system, to save $644,000 annually in the operating budget. About 2,500 students take part, though that total includes children who play more than one sport.

Students and parents spoke in favor of keeping the sports program at a School Board meeting this week.

The latest operating budget plan is $388 million. You'd think officials could find savings that are just 0.166 percent of the total spending to keep middle school cheerleaders cheering, football players tackling and volleyball players spiking.

In fairness, it's more complicated than that.

Start with the state government, which provides the division $40 million less annually than it did in 2008.

Officials have already cut spending in other areas. The Chesapeake division hasn't bought new school buses in at least four years; before, it tried to replace buses after 15 to 20 years of service.

"That cycle has gotten blown out of the water," School Board Chairman Jay Leftwich told me Friday.

Since the economic downturn, the division also has eliminated more than 300 positions through attrition. The travel budget has been slashed. Behind-the-wheel driver's education also could be eliminated.

"We may find the solution this year" on middle school sports, board member Tom Mercer told me. "Next year, unless people let their members of the General Assembly and governor know how important public education is, we'll be back looking at the same problems."

Cutting sports isn't a victory for anyone.

"Physically active students experience better concentration and memory in the classroom, supporting why student-athletes have, on average, higher grade point averages than their non-athlete counterparts and miss fewer days of school," Melissa Murray, an assistant professor at the University of Southern Mississippi, wrote in SEEN magazine.

"Young adults - ages 18 to 25 - were more likely to volunteer, vote and watch the news if they had participated in high school sports," she added.

Coaches also know they can get students to focus on their studies because such achievement means time on the basketball court or wrestling mat.

"It breaks my heart that we're even having this discussion," School Board member Bonita Harris said. She sees the sports-classroom link up close, because her husband has been a football coach in Chesapeake since 2002.

Harris noted one other possible drawback: "If they're not engaged in positive, productive activities after school, what will they be doing?"

There's no question the division wants to spend money wisely and faces tough choices.

What officials should recognize is that sports have value that goes far beyond touchdowns, three-pointers or somersaults.

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