They go by many names.
Pay-to-play fees. Participation fees. Transportation fees.
No matter what they’re called, the fees have crept into high school athletics around the Treasure Valley over the past decade, forcing parents to crack open their wallets wider and wider for their children to play.
And depending on where they live, parents face an uneven playing field, as pay-to-play policies vary from district to district.
The Boise School District has avoided pay-to-play fees, but cross the line into West Ada and it’ll cost you $110 per high school sport (with the third sport free).
In Canyon County, Nampa charges $50 per sport, while the neighboring districts of Caldwell, Vallivue and Middleton charge nothing.
Even the structure of the fees varies. Many districts charge a flat rate, but Fruitland offers a discount for siblings. Idaho City installed a $100 maximum per family and Payette charges based on the sport, creating a dizzying array of who pays what, and where.
BOISE VS. WEST ADA
Boise is able to avoid pay-to-play fees thanks to taxpayer support, district spokesman Dan Hollar said.
Boise’s levy rate was $492.91 per $100,000 of taxable property value last year, while West Ada’s was $401.87 per $100,000. That allows Boise to direct more resources to its athletic and extracurricular programs, a facet that shows up in what each district pays for.
Boise pays for all of its coaches’ salaries, while West Ada uses pay-to-play fees to offset salaries.
Boise also provides each high school $10,000 a year to spend on equipment. West Ada outfits each new school with equipment, but programs are on the hook for their replacements.
Hollar said it’s important for Boise to avoid pay-to-play fees to provide a full high school experience for all of its students. Not everyone plays a sport. But not everyone plays in the band either.
“We’ve been through budget turmoil like everyone else, but we’ve been able to make other cuts,” Hollar said.
West Ada installed its pay-to-play fees in the fall of 2011 as continued budget cuts took their toll. West Ada spokesman Eric Exline said the district also cut teaching positions, school days and 300,000 miles of school bus routes amid the recession.
The largest expense in the district’s extracurricular budget comes from coaches’ salaries. In order to defray some of the $2.8 million cost in the state’s largest school district, West Ada turned to the fees, which Exline said generate $750,000 a year.
“None of these things we went into going, ‘This sounds like a great plan,’” Exline said. “But this is what we have to do to make our budget work.”
West Ada’s extracurricular budget also includes activities other than sports. But programs that carry academic credits, such as marching band, drama and debate, do not charge a participation fee.
LIVING IN BOTH WORLDS
Christina Slocum has experienced both sides of the divide, having children in both the West Ada and Boise districts.
The third of her five children, Dominic, first attended Lake Hazel Middle School in West Ada, where he paid $90 to play football. West Ada charges less for middle school than high school sports.
Slocum said that fee caused resentment among parents over playing time.
“I’m all right if a kid doesn’t get in because he’s not working hard,” she said. “But with 80 kids on the team, the same boys played offense and defense. It’s like you’ve taken $90 from all the boys, and the same boys are playing both ways.”
Dominic later transferred to Capital High in the Boise School District, where he faced no fee. He graduated last spring.
“If it’s benefiting the kids, I’m OK paying it,” Slocum said. “But that’s if it’s benefiting the kids.”
A BALANCING ACT
The Nampa School District began its pay-to-play fee of $50 for high school athletes in the fall of 2013 to help cover transportation costs. The fees generated $144,537 in the 2016-17 school year of the $176,773 the district spent on travel costs for athletics.
Columbia Athletic Director Randy Potter said the district has tried to thread the needle of not charging too much to discourage students from trying out, but also generating enough revenue to make a dent in the budget.
“On our side of the tracks, we’re extremely conscious about we need our kids to participate,” Potter said. “If we make it too high, we’re going to lose kids who can’t afford to play. Sometimes in other districts, the fee is manageable for families. Here, we have to keep it to a minimum to allow participation.”
Coaches and administrators throughout the Treasure Valley stress that an inability to pay doesn’t prevent any athlete from playing. Scholarships are available. Payment plans can be worked out. Or students and parents can work off the fee in concession stands, for example.
But that covers only the students who speak up.
“What we don’t know is how many kids don’t say anything and don’t come out because they don’t have that money,” Payette Athletic Director Bob Dixon said.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Pay-to-play fees are just the start of the money parents need to fork over. Every athlete needs to buy a student body card that typically ranges from $30 to $40. Nonathletes also can buy that card for admission to events.
And schools throughout the Valley voluntarily offer what are known as “spirit packs” that provide everything from socks to shorts to other equipment parents typically would need to buy elsewhere. Prices vary but typically range from $20 to $75.
But that’s not the end.
Want to attend a team summer camp? Better get ready to raise funds. Need to replace a tackling dummy? Set up a fundraiser. Eyeing new uniforms? You guessed it. Time for a fundraiser.
“We may not have a specific pay-to-play fee, and we may not have a spirit pack like some schools,” Capital High football coach Todd Simis said. “But we have to fundraise as well, and we expect guys to participate in that.”
Depending on how you look at it, some individual programs even have installed additional fees on top of pay-to-play. The Eagle High football team charges players an additional $600. That includes a robust spirit pack, a pair of season tickets and all the equipment a player needs (except cleats).
But players can do fundraising to get to that $600. Sell 30 discount restaurant cards for $20 each and you’re there.
“As opposed to having parents, through a calendar year, nickel and diming them,” Eagle coach Paul Peterson said, “we just tell them right up front what the whole landscape for the calendar year will look like.”