• Spring is safe, but next year's entire program is vulnerable

Spring sports are safe. For now.

But after chasing down private contributors for help, exhausted supporters of high school athletics in Portland may have to work harder this spring and summer to save the entire Portland Interscholastic League sports program for next year.

Even if Oregon voters approve the temporary income-tax increase in Measure 28 today, the Portland school district is facing a budget deficit ranging from $23 million to $51 million next year.

High school sports cost the district about $1.4 million this year, so that part of the budget is among many places where school district leaders will be looking for possible cuts.

Marc Abrams, head of the school board's budget committee, predicts that given the expected budget deficit, 'some impact on sports is unavoidable.'

'When we're looking at more school closures, and much larger class sizes, (sports) is something that's on the list,' he said.

Administrators in the district's athletics office already are bracing for the prospect of a long summer of fund raising.

'It's hard to project what we might have to do, because we're still working on saving spring,' said Greg Ross, the PIL athletic director. 'But we know the options for next year include partial funding and zero funding, so we've started meeting to get ready for that.'

Portland Public Schools, which operated with a general fund

budget of about $362 million last year, has a general fund budget this year of $352 million. Based on Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed budget, the bottom-line general fund revenue for the district next year is expected to be about $343 million.

The total expected budget shortfall is caused by those revenue declines plus expected cost increases to the district.

Portland Superintendent Jim Scherzinger is scheduled to present his 'budget framework' Ñ which will outline options for possible cuts across the district Ñ to the school board next Monday. He will present his proposed budget, including prospective cuts, on Feb. 27.

Nothing is certain, but cuts could include closing one or more elementary schools and laying off hundreds of teachers Ñ thus raising student-staff ratios in the district to 35-1, or higher.

'With the level of cuts we will have from the state, just about everything in the budget will be gone through and analyzed,' said school board member Julia Brim-Edwards. 'We're going to have to discuss a whole long list of things that are important to students and families and staff. There's nothing that's sacred.'

Still, board Chairwoman Karla Wenzel said it isn't certain that sports will be cut. 'I'm not willing to say that,' she said. 'I think sports is so integral to the high school program.'

Between 30 percent and 40 percent of the district's 13,000 high school students participate in sports. The district takes in participation fees from 6,000 users, some of whom participate in more than one sport.

The district allocates about $2.7 million to athletic coaching salaries, travel and game management per year. The league raises $800,000 through charging admission to events and charging students $120 per sport, one of the highest rates in the state, so the district subsidized athletics to the tune of $1.4 million this year, after the spring fund-raising effort.

Fund raising is likely to be a way of life in Portland for the next year, acknowledged Drew Mahalic, head of the Oregon Sports Authority, which serves as a nonprofit booster club for Oregon athletics

But that should be the worst-case scenario for the district's athletes, coaches and parents, said Mahalic, whose organization has pledged $25,000 to find a long-term solution to athletic funding.

Mahalic doesn't think that will happen for another year.

'We need to work on saving spring sports and then have a bridge year where we focus on keeping athletics going,' he says. 'We don't want any kid to have to forfeit playing his senior year because there isn't adequate funding.

'But by the following year, we had better have a long-term solution that provides for solid funding of sports. And not just in the PIL but in other school districts that have the same funding problem.'

Mahalic said he's unclear what that solution is, and those involved aren't likely to start working on ideas until after the current state legislative session ends.

'I know it's not going to be easy finding a solution,' he said. 'If it were easy, we'd already have it.'

A beast unleashed

One problem the athletic department may run into is its success in raising almost $500,000 so far to salvage spring sports. Ross said he worries about the implications of the large, early donations, such as the $200,000 pledge in December from Portland native and Trail Blazer guard Damon Stoudamire, and the fact that other large donations quickly put the spring funding drive close to its $500,000 goal.

'People have come up to me and said, 'Well, you've got your money for spring,' and that's just not true,' Ross said. 'We still have a lot of work to do to finish our fund-raising drive and collect all the money that's been pledged.'

Ross said the success of the spring drive has led to the idea that the district can raise money for an entire year during the summer. That prospect doesn't do much for the morale of the district's fund-raising troops, he said.

'If people see us as being able to raise this amount now, they'll think we can do it all the time,' he said. 'But there are some things about this drive that might not happen again. I'm not sure that Damon Stoudamire would write out another $200,000, and we got other large donations that might be one-time donations.

'The impact another large fund-raising drive would have on people? That's a good one,' Ross said. 'We have a lot of people who are putting extra effort into this. But if they have to do it again and they see it as part of their lives in the future, then, maybe, they start to ask themselves if this is worth it?'

Help from Hawks

One thing working in favor of the fund raisers is that any money raised above the $500,000 they are currently seeking would be rolled into next year's fund-raising efforts.

At least one business supporting the spring funding drive said it will be there next year.

The Portland Winter Hawks are sending part of their proceeds from games in January to the PIL. Cory Howerton, director of sales, said that would be the case next year if the district were in trouble.

'Our players are mostly high school athletes, so they're very in tune with high school issues,' Howerton said. 'We'd want to be involved in supporting anything that impacts our community in such a positive way.'

Ross said that whatever the district decides to do with athletic funding, he'll make the best of that option.

'Whatever we're asked to do, that's what we'll do,' he said. 'Because the alternative is to do nothing, and we won't do that.'

Contact Cliff Pfenning at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and Todd Murphy at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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