What’s next? Paying to play in the school band? The pervasive drive to make students pay to play sports is unfair, short-sighted and ought to be stopped before it spreads to other extracurricular opportunities, including music.

When I grew up in the 1960s in Winthrop, all school activities proved to be valuable, learning experiences, whether it was studying Latin, playing basketball or singing in the choir. And really, how can we justify charging students who play sports and not students who participate in other extra-curricular activities? They are all important and worthy of support. I want every Maine kid to be able to experience all of this and more.

A Nov. 8 story by reporter Steve Craig in the Maine Sunday Telegram about pay-to-play sports was troubling. “Activity fees, common in other states, are slowly taking root in Maine,” wrote Craig. “They are often proposed as a way to keep sports programs operating without raising property taxes.

“But the fees are creating tension in some communities, with some parents and administrators arguing that the fees discourage participation from less fortunate families and that their taxes should cover all parts of their children’s education, including athletics.

“Eleven of the 29 public high schools in southern Maine’s two major sports conferences charge fees for every sport, according to an analysis by the Maine Sunday Telegram,” reported Craig. “Fees range from $10 per sport in Old Orchard Beach to $175 for most sports in Falmouth. In many cases, fees also apply at the middle school level.”

I’d say that this indicates that fees are not slowly taking root in Maine, they are rapidly doing so.

At one school, an administrator said it would be hard to give up the $150,000 they were raising from kids playing sports. Well, it’s not all about the money. At least it shouldn’t be.

Many schools in central Maine also charge fees to kids who want to play sports. Some waive the fee for low-income students but that sets them apart and discourages many from playing. And, of course, there are other significant expenses that parents are responsible for, from sneakers to musical instruments.

In high school, I sang in the choir, played in the band and played basketball. When the basketball team returned to the locker room for halftime, I walked over to join the band and play my trumpet. Our Winthrop High School band, in 1964, enjoyed an amazing experience when we were chosen to represent Maine in President Lyndon Johnson’s inaugural parade in Washington, D.C. I still remember that trip well, including the very long ride in a school bus. Marching down Pennsylvania Avenue expanded my world view. Up to that time, the farthest I’d traveled out of Maine was Boston’s Fenway Park.

I would argue that these experiences helped me mature, taught me the importance of team work, and gave me life-long interests that are still important to me, especially music. I don’t remember much about chemistry or trigonometry, but the things I learned on the field and in the band have stayed with me and helped shape my life.

“Most schools with activity fees began instituting them around 2008, when school budgets were stretched by reduced state funding and taxpayers were hit by the recession” reported Craig. “Activity fees, in virtually all cases, are deposited into a school’s general fund and are not specifically earmarked for sports.”

I know that the lack of sufficient state funding for schools and other local expenses have caused lots of problems, but we should not load those problems onto our kids.

We already know that kids in poor households participate in extracurricular activities at about half the rate of kids in middle- and high-income families. While we struggle to feed those kids, too many of whom are hungry, we also should find ways to encourage and allow them to participate in after-school activities. Charging them for those opportunities certainly doesn’t do that.

Portland High athletic director Rob O’Leary, where fees are not charged, told Craig he’s certain activity fees reduce athletic participation — and that it gets worse as the price rises. “Our central office and teachers and administrators just understand how important sports are for school kids,” he said. “With the diversity we have here and the amount of students who participate, the dollar amount we spend on athletics isn’t that great to put kids out who can’t afford it.”

Good for Portland. And good advice for all other Maine schools.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or [email protected]. Read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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