Discrepancy over sports fees dominates meeting

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By Tony Garcia
The Meridian Times

A discrepancy about how much families on free or reduced lunch should pay for students to play sports became the focal point of a heated debate in an Oct. 15 community conversation called by the Okemos School Board.

According to the district’s website, “This special meeting is being established for the purpose of engaging in two-way communication with the public on the topic of budget priorities.” However the meeting quickly found a point of contention between the parents, the athletic boosters and the School Board.

The problem is a discrepancy between student-parent handbook, and what is written on the website to register for athletics.

The handbook reads, “Due to budgetary constraints, the Okemos School Board has directed the Athletic Department at Okemos High School to assess a registration fee for student-athletes participation in all interscholastic sports.”

This fee is $360 per athlete, with a family cap at $560.

The policy says, “Students who meet federal guidelines for the free or reduced lunch program will have the registration fee waived.”

On the Okemos athletics website, when parents go to fill out the registration fee form, there is a different rule. It states, “Parents of students who meet the federal guidelines of the free and/or reduced lunch program will be asked to pay a reduced registration fee of $100 for high school student-athletes with a $200 family cap.”

Former vice president of the Okemos Athletic Boosters, Tom Horton,asked the board how this discrepancy came to be, and furthermore, “If the Okemos High School student-parent handbook is truly the board policy, should all the money collected by the athletic department be returned to those families?”

Horton received no direct response during the meeting, but came prepared. He brought dozens of copies of a 10-page, color handout, with e-mails from board officials, and quotes from both the athletics website and the student-parent handbook.

Superintendent Catherine Ash said no student has ever been held out of athletics due to the inability to pay. “We don’t pass judgment. Whatever they (the parents) tell us is the level they can do it at, we accept it and we embrace it” said Ash. The School Board will now look into how a discrepancy like this happened, but, “To be honest it was probably an administrative oversight.”

In the student-parent handbook, it states that the Okemos School Board“directed the athletic department” to institute this registration fee. However, when Horton asked who was responsible for the difference between the policies, the Board did not accept responsibility.

“I don’t know what the handbook says. I would have to go and look at it” said Ash. The majority of the student-parent handbook is updated by the assistant principal, whereas the website is manned by the athletic director. “If it’s not aligned, it is because the assistant principal didn’t make the changes at the same time they were made over here (in the Athletic Department).”

Eric Stelljes is former president of Athletic Boosters at Okemos High School, and he said the fee is not in the best interest of the families.

“The amount that was picked, was picked specifically to overcome a budget deficit. Not to support or sustain athletics, and in my opinion that is a disingenuous approach” said Stelljes. “What they have really done is they have pushed over the limit. We have families and students that are not participating because of the exorbitant fee.”

Stelljes said the board should try to find a financially efficient approach.

“I understand that there will be athletic registration fees,” said Stelljes, but the key is to “find the sweet spot. I think they deserve and we deserve community voice, in order to find that level where it is affordable for families and we have the maximum participation in athletics.”

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