James Dykes never made headlines at Exeter for his performances in football or track and field, but participating in those sports helped shape him and provided a gateway to college.
“Sports are important to me,” said Dykes. “They taught me a lot: How to become a man, how to take responsibility, how to get around obstacles.”
Running and jumping skills have helped give Dykes an opportunity to go to college. He’ll run track at Eastern Nazarene College in Quincy, Mass.
He’s one of 43 seniors at Exeter – that’s 12 percent of the entire graduating class – who will play sports in college, many earning partial scholarships or grants because of their athletic prowess.
Aaliyah Linfoot will play field hockey at Colgate, where the cost of tuition and room and board is $75,000 per year. Alex Javier will play football at Carnegie Mellon, which costs $76,000. Connor Powell will play lacrosse at Widener, where costs are $63,000. Playing sports will help them defray those costs.
Many of those 43 seniors at Exeter have earned some sort of athletic scholarships, maybe one-half of the total cost, maybe one-quarter, with grants and academic aid covering more of the total cost. The true full ride, such as the one All-State lineman Michal Menet earned to play at Penn State, are few and far between.
Forty-three student-athletes from one class playing a sport in college is a huge number; Exeter athletic director Tom Legath believes it’s the largest number of any school in District 3, and possibly the state.
Some of them would not be getting those chances had they not excelled in volleyball, wrestling, tennis or one of the 31 sports offered by the school.
Those opportunities come at a cost: Exeter’s athletic budget for the 2020-21 school year is projected at $1.4 million.
That’s less than 2 percent of the total budget and well worth it, say those closely involved in high school athletics.
“Certainly, you need math, English, social studies as part of your curriculum,” said Legath, “but athletics is a big piece of the total high school experience. Some of these kids wouldn’t come to school every day if it wasn’t for athletics. That’s why you can’t look at just the basic skills of school; there’s so much more that broadens a kid. (Athletics) encompasses and molds a kid forever, and it’s an experience they’ll never forget.
“Taking those opportunities away from kids … I can’t even begin to think about how much that would hurt our society.”
Athletic opportunities, like other items on the budget sheet, could be in the crosshairs of an economic pinch caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. economy came to a screeching halt in March, and public school budgets, funded largely by tax revenues, have been blindsided.
The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials has projected school revenues will be reduced by 4-5% statewide.
“Every tax source and other non-tax revenue will suffer a precipitous decline,” said Dr. Timothy J. Shrom, PASBO director of research. “In an economic downturn we know that unemployment goes up, thereby reducing our local income tax revenue, and we know that the real estate market will be affected, resulting in a reduction of our real estate transfer tax.
“We also know that taxpayers will need more time to pay, thus reducing property tax revenues. And with the significant cuts in the rates, interest earnings will take a hit.”
The PASBO report projected losses of $1 million or more for almost every school district in Berks County, and losses of $2 million or more at Boyertown, Exeter, Gov. Mifflin, Muhlenberg, Reading High, Twin Valley and Wilson.
Already, many Berks athletic budgets are feeling the pinch; some schools have trimmed costs for uniforms, equipment or other smaller expenditures for the coming school year.
No one’s talking publicly about major cuts that could see school districts ax certain sports entirely, but it didn’t take long for that to happen at the college level.
“The last thing you want to do is cut a program or reduce opportunities for kids,” said Kutztown athletic director Ed Yapsuga. “You hate to see opportunities like that put on the chopping block.”
A month after the sports world ground to a halt in mid-March, the University of Cincinnati announced it was discontinuing the men’s soccer program as a direct result of the coronavirus.
Since then, almost 100 colleges, at all levels, have eliminated sports.
Will we see that at the high school level?
Everything, administrators say, will depend on how soon, and how far, the economy bounces back.
The college and public school economic models are different and so are the philosophies behind athletic funding, so it should play out differently for high schools.
“At the college level, it’s more like a business,” said Gov. Mifflin athletic director Pat Tulley. “They are generating revenue (from major sports) and that revenue is helping (fund) other departments.
“At the high school level that’s not the case. High school sports are geared to teach kids values they can rely on for the rest of their lives. Athletic teams are something the community can rally behind. It’s hard to put dollar figures on those things.”
Public schools saw athletic expenditures for officials and transportation reduced because there was no spring sports season due to the COVID-19 shutdown. (Salaries for coaches and other athletics-related personnel — which represent the largest portion of athletic budgets — were paid.)
If fall sports schedules are trimmed, or some sports are not played at all because of health concerns, schools will again spend less for athletics.
Then again, impending health-related restrictions or changes in practice and game procedures could add additional costs. That has yet to be determined.
If sports programs are eliminated it’s likely that the lower levels — middle school and freshman teams — will be considered first. The Pottsville school board voted last month to eliminate freshman football for the upcoming season. It considered eliminating all middle school sports, as well as freshman basketball and varsity golf and tennis, but opted not to do so.
“Middle school sports are often the first thing thrown out there (when cuts are needed),” said one Berks athletic director.
Athletic leaders fear that if lower level programs are cut, those athletes may opt not to return to sports once they reach high school.
At Gov. Mifflin, where 30 percent of students in grades 7-12 participate in sports, the athletic budget is $1.5 million. That’s 2.1% of the total $73 million budget.
Superintendent Dr. Steve Gerhard believes that’s money well spent.
“We try to provide opportunities for students in and out of the classroom,” he said. “Each student has unique talents, unique interests. They (athletics) are an essential part of the overall instructional program. We’re developing young people to be thriving adults.”