For many young athletes, there’s nothing quite like putting on a middle school jersey and participating in a school sport. For some, playing on a middle school team is a major steppingstone in a young athletic career. For others, joining a junior high team marks the beginning of a foray into organized athletics.
Regardless, educators, parents and students say the chance to participate in middle school sports should be a quintessential offering of the school experience. However, an entire generation on the coast is at risk of missing out on this important rite of passage.
Over the last few months, just about the time that the Cunha Intermediate School volleyball teams were stepping onto the court, the Cabrillo Unified School District was powering through plans to stabilize the school budget. As the sounds of the volleyball being served up segued into the squeak of basketball sneakers on polished hardwood, the school district announced that the Cunha after-school sports program was on the chopping block.
“Are we going to have a program at all?” recalled Cunha Athletic Director Timothy Lugo. “That was one of the first questions that parents asked. Are we going to have any sports at Cunha?
“When the announcement was made, stating that total funding was going to be cut for the program, there wasn’t anything in place to take up that slack,” he continued. “Parents were rightly concerned.”
Lugo said that many of the parents don’t fully comprehend how the Cunha after-school sports program works.
“We’re roughly structured like the high school sports seasons,” said Lugo. “Winter is basketball. We have a variety of spring sports, and we offer different sports for different seasons.
“We work hard to have enough teams where everyone who tries out gets an opportunity to play,” he continued. “But a big part of that decision is financial. Fielding a team has a price tag associated with it.”
During the course of the school year, the program has fielded 28 teams, including girls volleyball, cross-country, flag football, basketball, soccer, track, and tennis. The program also features a boys volleyball team and co-ed wrestling.
The price tag translates into thousands of dollars per team. The contributing factors include league fees, uniforms, equipment, coaching stipends, and referee fees. It all adds up to a significant chunk of change that has no line item in the current school district budget.
Youth sports are big business in the United States. An obvious solution would be to charge each athlete a fee to play. As it turns out, given the program’s association with a public
middle school, it is against the law to ask students to pony
up the dough so that they can play.
“Because we are Cunha sports, the law prevails that says we cannot have pay to play,” said Cunha Intermediate School Principal James Barnes. “You can’t tell a student that they cannot play basketball unless they pay.”
In light of that restriction, the fate of the Cunha athletics program falls squarely on the shoulders of parent volunteers — or at least it did before the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside stepped in.
“When the district cuts 100 percent of the funding, you have to look for alternatives,” said Cunha Athletic Boosters President John Holm. “With the help of the Boys and Girls Club, Cunha sports isn’t going anywhere.”
The Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside has entered into negotiations with Cabrillo and the hope is that the club will reach an agreement that will maintain the current level of the sports program. There’s also a glimmer of hope that, under the club’s care, the program will grow to a level beyond what the school district would have been able to provide.
Althought the onslaught of COVID-19 may have slowed progress of some initiatives, the Boys and Girls Club of the Coastside has been working with the district to hammer out a plan to transfer responsibility of the sports program to the organization.
“The goal is to have the school board approve the concept at their April 16 meeting,” said Boys and Girls Club Executive Director Jill Jacobson. “We’re in agreement with what needs to happen. The shelter-in-place is a little bit of a bump in the road.”
After the transfer is approved, Jacobson plans to work hand in hand with those in the know to ensure the transition is as seamless as possible. Her plan is to leverage the expertise of Lugo and others in order to ensure there is no disruption of service.
“We’ve worked really hard since we’ve learned of the cuts to understand what’s involved with the programs,” said Jacobson. “Our commitment is to maintain the athletic program in its current form.
“Even though everything is at a halt right now, we have every expectation that, come August, we are going to have a strong program for Cunha athletics,” said Jacobson. “We need to raise the money now.”
The original plan was for the Cunha Athletic Boosters to
partner with Boys and Girls Club for spring fundraising. Because of the COVID-19 safety precautions that are now in place, the majority of the Booster fundraisers have been canceled.
“We had planned to revamp some of the larger fundraising efforts, but with all that’s going on, we just can’t pull that off this year,” said Holm. “We need to think about what we can do in the next year to fundraise.”
“The Boys and Girls Club is going to cover the sports budget for next year,” said Barnes. “Coastside Gives is going to help defray the costs that Boys and Girls Club is going to take on.”
“The Coastside is an amazing community,” said Jacobson. “We care about each other; we care about our young people
“We need the help of this community,” she continued. “This is the time for anyone who believes in the power of sports to step up. Middle school is such a critical time in a young person’s life. Keeping these middle school sports programs is extremely important.”