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Many Students Must Get Used to School - Minus Sports, Art, Music ...

September 5, 1993

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (AP) _ It’s tough for Sarah Kidwell to imagine school without sports, without cheerleading, without the student council.

But that’s what she and, in various degrees, thousands of other students can expect when they walk through the doors of their public schools this fall.

″A lot of people are really upset about it - especially not having sports,″ said Kidwell, who’ll be entering eighth grade this fall at Vestaburg High School in mid-Michigan.

″It’s going to be pretty boring. There’s really not anything else to do around here.″

In school upon school across Michigan and nationwide, budget shortfalls or expected shortfalls are forcing cuts. The big questions: Where to cut, and what difference will it make beyond the money?

Some schools are planning to close early - in some cases just weeks after opening - if voters or state governments don’t come up with more money.

But for most schools looking at huge budget deficits, programs like athletics, physical education, music and art, field trips and after-school programs are often the first to get the ax.

Compounding the problem in Michigan is the state Legislature’s vote in July to slice property taxes by 65 percent next summer, thereby eliminating funding for school operations in the 1994-95 school year. Lawmakers have not yet decided how to replace the $6.3 billion in lost state revenue.

″I don’t know of any other state in which the level of uncertainty is as high as it is in Michigan,″ said Jeremiah Floyd, associate executive director of the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va.

″But districts all over the country are facing financial problems and are having to curtail expenditures in a whole host of areas - often beginning with extracurricular activities.″

California schools have been forced to lay off counselors, nurses and librarians, and to cut extracurricular activities.

″Our beliefs about what is necessary for a balanced, well-rounded education is going out the window,″ said Brian Lewis, spokesman for the California School Boards Association.

Some educators say cutting such programs will be devastating for students. Besides promoting students’ physical and mental health, they say, activities spark enthusiasm that often spills over into academics.

Through these activities, students develop self-esteem and learn vital lessons that often don’t come with the basics but are highly valued by employers: teamwork, decision-making, communication skills, cooperation and competitiveness.

″These programs are not frills. They are a critical part of kids’ socialization and development,″ said Associate Professor Michael Boulus, who teaches school finance at Michigan State University’s College of Education and is executive director of the Middle Cities Education Association.

″School will cease to have as much meaning without this social, athletic and cultural exchange. I’m sure some will drop out as a result,″ he said.

Ronald Milks, superintendent of Vestaburg Community Schools - where Sarah Kidwell is a student - says a review of records over the past few years shows that students’ grades improved after they became involved in extracurricular activities.

With the school board’s vote to eliminate all sports, busing and many extracurricular activities, he expects the opposite may occur. And if voters again reject a property tax increase in October, the board will cut all music and band classes, all elementary physical education courses and all vocational courses in the second semester.

″I expect we’ll see more discipline problems,″ he said. ″These programs instill competitiveness, self-discipline and help to keep the kids more interested in the classroom.″

When Gene Thompson was school superintendent in Manchester, near Ann Arbor, from 1979-86, he also anticipated an increase in behavior problems when he was forced to cut athletics, drama classes and other extracurricular activities due to budget problems.

He was wrong.

″The school just went apathetic, there was no zing or life there,″ said Thompson, now an associate professor of education at Western Michigan University.

″Everybody went through the motions, but it definitely affected the learning system, the entire culture of the school. The excitement a school feels about its athletic teams and its other extracurricular programs is very important part of the learning process.″

Some schools have avoided eliminating sports programs by charging students to participate. But critics say ″pay-to-play″ policies only further alienate poorer students who often are in greatest need of the self-esteem and structure that school athletics provide.

Some taxpayers who have turned down property tax renewals or increases say such programs are ″nonessentials″ and their elimination may wind up benefiting students by focusing more attention on academics.

″Sports, music, art. Are these a better education?″ Mario Rozzi, a member of the St. Clair Shore Taxpayers Association, told the Detroit Free Press. ″These are elective things you want to do.″

State taxpayers associations say members generally want to keep extracurricular programs, but are fed up with higher taxes and the state’s inability to find an equitable method of funding schools.

″We find that most school districts have had exceptionally fast spending growth over the past 10 years - much faster than that of the average family,″ said Patrick Anderson, director of Taxpayers United for the Michigan Constitution.

″School boards have to make decisions about what’s necessary and what’s not - just like families have to.″

But many education experts say taxpayers who think they are saving money by allowing schools to cut extracurricular programs are being short-sighted. Students who lose interest in school and drop out are more likely to wind up as less productive citizens - or even worse - in the criminal justice system, they say.

″When you take out those types of programs, you diminish the capacity for the student to develop to their fullest potential,″ said Patrick Jenlink, a former school superintendent from Oklahoma who now is an assistant professor of education at Western Michigan University.

″These programs help to teach value for the human life, value for our fellow man. That can never be offset by what some people realize fiscally.″

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