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Students in the Longview School District will no longer have to pay to play on a school sports team.

School board members Monday voted unanimously to eliminate the participation fees for athletic groups, despite some apprehension that the move would require the district to make up almost $70,000 in revenue.

“We should not be backing down from doing something that levels the playing field for all of our students. … Here is a barrier that has been clearly identified by our athletic directors, and I think we ought to tear that barrier down,” said Board President C.J. Nickerson shortly before the vote.

Participation fees, sometimes referred to as “pay-to-play” fees, help cover the cost of the athletic programs in the district. Revenue from the fees is used to pay for officials’ salaries, equipment, uniforms and membership cost for the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.

Under the pay-to-play system, high school students owed $75 to play football and $60 for all other sports while middle school students pay $40 for football and $30 for all other sports. Discounted prices were available for students on the free and reduced lunch program, and the district used a federal grant to provide waivers to low-income students who might not otherwise be able to afford the fees.

Nickerson and board member Barb Westrick said they were concerned the pay-to-play system might still prevent some students from joining an athletic team, even with the discounts and waivers.

“A lot of kids, they don’t want to be labeled. I think that’s some of the reason we should want to (eliminate the fees),” Westrick said

However, about a quarter of each school’s athletic budget is covered by those fees. (The rest of the program is funded by ticket sales, which includes revenues from Associated Student Body cards or community passes for games.) District officials estimate about $70,000 would be needed to “fill the gap” left by eliminating the participation fees.

Athletic directors in the district also noted that getting rid of the fees might cause a spike in the number of students playing sports, which would lead to an additional increase in cost.

“The key (concern) from our athletic directors is budgetary,” said Superintendent Dan Zorn Monday. The athletic directors aren’t opposed to eliminating the fees, Zorn said, they just don’t know where to make up the lost revenues.

Amidst a projected $2 million deficit for the 2019-20 school year, some board members hesitated to get rid of the fees for fear of having to cut additional money from the budget.

“We are in a period of making budget cuts,” said board member Don Wiitala. “I would support this, but again … we have to try to (support) all of those (programs), and the pie is only so big.”

Representatives from the local union for school support staff also voiced their concerns over adding to the district’s projected deficit by getting rid of the fees.

“I think it’s important to keep in mind when you are balancing out equity for these students, that many of these students belong to the families of” school staff who might lose their jobs in the budget cuts, said Shawn Nyman, organizer for the local Service Employees International Union. “I want to see every kid who wants to play sports be able to do it, but” the district should be mindful of the budget.

Nonetheless, the board agreed that eliminating the fees was in the best interest for the students, and members voted unanimously to get rid of the pay-to-play system.

Nickerson said “there could be alternative ways to generate this money,” such as buying new designs for uniforms less often. However, it was unclear Monday how the district plans to make up for the lost revenue.

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