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

The Sitka School Board authorized spending $6,000 out of reserves to fund the high school’s co-ed varsity soccer program for the coming spring season.

The money was about one-third of the original request for the program. Board members consented to the lesser amount with this caveat: Next year, there may be no district funding whatsoever – for soccer or some other popular activities.
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Parent Elliot Bruhl made the case for district funding of soccer. His kids have participated in many school sports and activities. He said participation in activities was an important predictor of success in school.

“I think that these programs are not window dressing, they’re not frosting on the cake. They’re essential to our educational programming in this town.”

Forty-five students now play soccer at Sitka High, 31 boys and 14 girls. Soccer began as a club activity five years ago, and became a varsity co-ed sport a year later.

The motion on the table was give soccer $18,000, or an equal share of the $162,000 activities allotment that the district divides among all sanctioned sports. Bruhl volunteered that the soccer program could manage with $9,000, but he suggested that if the legislature was not going to make public education a priority, than Sitka should. The assembly, in the last couple of budget cycles, has not been funding local schools to the maximum allowed under state law.

“You know, I remember a time ten or fifteen years ago when this community funded up to the cap. I think that people in this community who care about education need to speak out – forcefully – in a public setting about the importance of this community standing behind its kids…. And it’s clear that the state is not going to support it as much as it has in the past. So we as a community need to step up.”

Soccer has become a varsity sport in much the same way that football and baseball have. A dynamic group of parents pull together to create a program for their kids, manage all the funding and travel, and then hand it to the district when their kids graduate. Sitka High activities director Mike Vieira urged the board to look to the future, when parents like Elliot Bruhl no longer had children in school.

“I guess my question really is, Can we afford it? I hate to stand up here and seem like I’m in opposition to Elliot. He’s been my biggest ally in this position over the last six years. If the people came to us the first time to ask for soccer with this request for money, the question would have been, Can we afford it?”

In a worst-case budget scenario, partially cutting the total activities allotment and adding soccer might mean that other teams would lose about $4,000 each. This has caught the attention of other coaches, like Swimming head coach Robby Jarvill, who’ve been working with fixed or declining budgets in recent years.

“You know, the $10,000 that I get every year has not changed in 11 years. The flight to Juneau has changed a lot in 11 years.”

But Jarvill also shared an opinion that mirrored what basketball coaches Rich Krupa and Andy Lee, and softball coach Bob Potzruski all said

“I’m for soccer. If kids want to get out and do it, I’m not going to be the one to say No. But as a group we need to figure out how to get better funding take this off of parents and take this off so much fund raising.”

The burden of activity fees, plus fundraising has been addressed before. School board president Lon Garrison was clearly frustrated that the board was having to deal with a chronic problem as a crisis.

“I will remind everybody that Tim Fulton led an effort last year to find alternative sources of fund, and it came to absolutely zip. Participation in that committee process fizzled out completely. Now here we are.”

Garrison recommended re-establishing a committee to explore funding alternatives. He said that an idea offered by coach Andy Lee – a fifty-fifty raffle at basketball games – was a good starting point.

Other board members were cautious. Cass Pook was reluctant to take money out of reserves to fund soccer, especially when the district faced the prospect of cutting teaching positions next year. Tonia Rioux offered the motion to reduce the funding amount from $18,000 to $6,000, which passed. Jen Robinson was encouraged by the high participation in soccer, but said her “yes” vote was not a promise of funding in the future. Tim Fulton said he believed that if the district were going to fund soccer, it should do so in parity with other sports.

Superintendent Steve Bradshaw did not argue the merits of soccer. He said the board will be looking at $1-million in cuts to next year’s budget. This funding was a small gesture, in comparison.

“We’re here for $6,000 tonight, and I think you can pass it, but I think this discussion will come up in the budget, cause something’s gotta go.”

The vote to fund soccer was 5-1 with Cass Pook opposed. The first formal budget hearing will be with district faculty and staff on Tuesday, February 12 at 3:45 PM in the Sitka Performing Arts Center.