Marvin Douglas, the athletic director at Park Center High School in Brooklyn Center, frets daily about skyrocketing activity fees.
"It seems like everytime I walk out the door, I have parents approaching me asking, 'What are we going to do?"' Douglas said.
He's not alone.
While activity fee hikes in 2001 didn't hurt student participation in sports, music and drama in Minnesota high schools, the latest wave of increases has. In cities and towns like Mounds View and Irondale, students this school year will be asked to pay $355 to play hockey.
At Park Center, the fees to be on the track and field team jumped to $180 this spring from $60 the previous spring, after a voters in the district rejected a proposed levy increase in November.
As a result, the Pirate team dropped to 70 participants from 140. This fall, the football team has 40 fewer boys trying out, forcing coaches to cut the junior varsity program. Numbers are also down in tennis and swimming.
Voters will have another chance to pass a levy in November. If it fails, Douglas worries the district will be forced to cut teams.
Dan Faust said fees for his son, Joe, to play soccer and hockey this year at Park Center High will eclipse what he paid for his two older kids combined -- in their entire careers.
"It's an extra burden on the family," Faust said as he watched his son in a soccer game Thursday night. "I guess we end up paying it because we understand the value it has for Joe's experience. But I don't think the school really prepared us for this."
The steep increases have caused some schools to be more flexible in collecting the fees. For example, Anoka-Hennepin schools are allowing parents to pay fees with a credit card for the first time.
"My concern is we're going to lose a lot of (junior varsity and freshman) sports," Douglas said. "If you don't have the lower levels to develop younger players who are maybe too small or not ready to play varsity, that will affect how many varsity players you have in a few years."
That concern is echoed in other Twin Cities suburbs.
Shannon Garrity took over as head football coach at Blaine High School earlier this summer after his predecessor left for Minnetonka, in part because fees at Blaine were raised again, this time from $210 to $290. Minnetonka charges $107 for football.
Garrity's varsity numbers have held strong, but Blaine, which has played in three of the last six state championship games, has 75 boys out for freshman football, about 35 below average.
"Our freshman numbers are terrible for Blaine," Garrity said. "That scares us, because one day those freshmen are going to be seniors."
For the most part, sharp rises in student fees are a suburban problem. Every school receives the same amount of state basic education aid per student, but funding differences are created by voters either accepting or rejecting referendum levies.
That's why Blaine, which receives $157 per student in levy money from its community, has to charge so much more than Hopkins, which gets $1,600 per student. The metro average is $475.
Fees are holding steady at outstate schools like Duluth East, Northfield and Fergus Falls, where the community passed a levy alleviating some financial problems. Smaller fee hikes in the $20-30 range are seen in Warroad and Grand Rapids.
In the Minneapolis schools, fees are higher ($60 for most sports, $70 for football, $90 for hockey), but still somewhat manageable in comparison to places like Park Center and Blaine.
In most schools, students who qualify for subsidizied lunches do not have to pay the fee. Many schools also have a cap on the amount a family can spend for activities. At Blaine, it's $800 and at Park Center, it's $750.
Apple Valley, Rosemount, Eastview and Eagan actually saw fees decrease $40 after a referendum was approved by voters in their district.
A levy approval would be a dream come true for Park Center's Douglas, who foresees negative impact on the community if programs are cut.
"If you start taking activities out of high schools, we're going to have problems," Douglas said. "If kids don't have opportunities after school, they're going to find other opportunities that may not be very good."
Most officials agree that the less-talented individuals stand to lose the most.
"Your superstars are going to play," Garrity said. "Parents will find a way to get them on the field. They don't need it. The kids that are borderline trouble, borderline talented enough, they're not going to play. And those are the kids that need it the most."
The financial problems leave Blaine's chances of remaining one of the elite football programs in the state in doubt, Garrity said. But he's more concerned that too many kids will lose opportunities to be a part of something special.
"You have to see what the kids are learning and see the difference in them from day one to week 10," he said. "That's what kids need. They need an identity, they need a group of friends. And there are, unfortunately, 35 kids out there in Blaine who aren't getting it this year. If the trend continues, eventually it's going to catch up to us."
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