Sitka High senior Josh Risko moves the ball downfield during a May 2011 game against Thunder Mountain. (KCAW file photo by Berett Wilber)

High school soccer teams around Southeast will soon take on varsity squads from Sitka. The school board approved varsity boys and girls teams for next year at its meeting last Thursday night.

Now they just have to figure out how to pay for it.

Lione Clare will be a junior next year at Sitka High School. She dances and plays some musical instruments. When her friends suggested she try soccer two years ago, she wasn’t sure.

“I didn’t know I would ever be a sporty person,” Clare said. “I know soccer is the only sport the majority of the team does play in high school. I think that experience, being together and playing as a team, and learning those skills, is really important.”

The district approved soccer as a sport in 2009, and established a co-ed team. The team found itself playing against other high schools whose players were usually boys. Clare usually plays right midfield wing, sometimes forward.

“It’s really fun playing against guys, but it’s definitely intimidating sometimes, especially the other team,” she said. “There’s a difference between guys and girls, how they play. I think that’s a big factor that’s keeping a lot of girls from playing, which is sad.”

She hopes that with two teams, more girls might be encouraged to play.

Soccer supporters have been lobbying the school board for recognition – and funding – for a couple years now. They’ve argued that a growing program deserves district support. In 2009, soccer had between 25 and 30 kids. Last season, more than 45 played.

“They made very persuasive arguments,” said Lon Garrison, president of the Sitka school board. He said he had some concerns – not with the program itself, but with the district’s overall activities.

“We do phenomenal things with activities,” he said. “Our kids are able to do a lot of activities, especially with the size of school we have. My real concern is, do we have enough staff, adequate staff, especially with regard to administration, to be on site like we want them to supervise what’s going on.”

Garrison says he’s also concerned about the amount of time students spend away from the classroom, traveling to and from events.

And then there’s money. The school board slashed $50,000 from activities during the last budget cycle. It was added back in Thursday night, in order to cover travel to state tournaments. Success gets expensive when it means taking a team to other Southeast communities or to Anchorage.

In 2010, various school activities paid more than $200,000 to Alaska Airlines. Another $54,000 went to the state ferry system. The district funds a portion of that. The rest comes from fundraising and donations from area businesses.

And although soccer received varsity recognition, the board has NOT decided on how to fund it. Garrison says right now the pie is only so big, and so the question is whether to slice the pie differently, or to bake a bigger pie and add to the budget.

“If we add to the budget, where do we subtract from the budget? We don’t have extra revenue coming in. That’s my problem. If we’re laying off reading specialists, or cutting back on academic activities, and yet we’re going to add more money to the budget because of varsity sports, that doesn’t mesh well with my priorities. We need to hear from the community on that.”

The school board formed a committee to look at activities and receive feedback, but meetings were poorly attended, and the committee was dissolved. Garrison says the conversation will still happen – most likely in the context of overall budget discussions.

The soonest the board will address funding for soccer directly will probably be August, when it next meets.