School districts in other states have cut deeply into high school sports to save money. But public schools in New Jersey continue to add to the more than $200 million per year spent on high school athletics, making the state No. 1 nationally in the number of championship-level sports.

The pressure to expand sports while tightening budgets has led to a policy tug-of-war between those who believe sports play a vital role in education and should be publicly funded through taxes, and those who believe parents should pick up at least some of the cost.

This year, sports teams at some high schools in Florida were told to become self-sufficient or be eliminated, and a football team in Massachusetts is being funded entirely by private donations, Athletic Business reported on its Web site last month. Hawaiians started a massive Save Our Sports campaign to raise $1.2 million cut from the budget.

Jerry Cantrell, president of the New Jersey Taxpayers Association, believes parents should contribute to their child's extracurricular activities, whether it is sports, band, or chess club. New Jersey schools also budgeted more than $82 million this year for other extracurricular activities.

"It's gotten out of hand," said Cantrell, a former school board president whose son plays high school lacrosse. "It's just problematic to keep asking taxpayers to pay for it all."

Schools are relying more on "booster clubs" to raise money. But only 15 New Jersey public high schools require students or their parents to pay a fee to play sports or participate in other extracurricular activities, according to data collected by the New Jersey School Boards Association.

"It just hasn't caught on in New Jersey the way it has in other states," said NJSBA spokesman Mike Yaple.

A bill proposed in the state Legislature would prohibit schools from charging activity fees.

More teams than any other state

The number of high school sports teams in New Jersey has increased 20 percent in the past five years.

Ice hockey, lacrosse, fencing, bowling, and volleyball have helped make New Jersey first in the nation with 32 state championship-level sports, according to Steve Timko, executive director of the New Jersey School Interscholastic Athletic Association, or NJSIAA. The state is also first in the number of sports for women, with 16.

There is no state aid for sports in New Jersey, so districts must either get creative in their budgeting or tap local taxpayers. New uniform purchases have been delayed and teams are doubling up on buses.

Hammonton discussed and abandoned an activity fee because it would be too discriminatory, school board president Loretta Rehmann said.

"What about those who can't afford to pay?" she asked. "It's tough times for everyone."

Instead the district made some cuts, and relies on team fundraising and donations. The district can afford a bowling team only because school board member Stephen DiDonato donates the time at his bowling center.

Among the districts that do charge, fees range from $50 in East Brunswick to $100 in Robbinsville, Ridgewood and Haddonfield, and $300 in Glen Ridge, with discounts for more than one child. Waivers are provided for students in the free and reduced-fee lunch program.

A national survey in 2005 by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association found about 35 percent of schools that responded said students were required to pay an activities fee, the most common being for transportation. Schools were also less likely to pay for equipment in an expensive sport such as crew.

An emotional issue

Cantrell said sports are an emotional issue for parents, who are very vocal if they believe their children's programs are threatened. But there is a larger public policy issue to address about what constitutes publicly-funded education.

A bill sponsored by state Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Salem, Gloucester, Cumberland, would prohibit schools from charging fees for extracurricular activities. Burzichelli did not return calls for comment, but has said he believes charging a user fee could discriminate against those who cannot afford to pay.

Lynne Strickland, executive director of the Garden State Coalition of Schools, said districts need flexibility in how they save money. She said fee waivers ensure low-income students are not excluded.

"It really hasn't happened that students can't play," she said, adding that fees offer a compromise that helps control costs while still offering activities.

"It would seem to me that it does more harm if they take the activity away," she said.

Yaple said the school boards association also opposes the bill because it has no flexibility and could force districts to cut programs students want.

"No one wants to add fees," he said. "But in other states it's not even an issue. It's just part of how things are handled."

The number of New Jersey public and private high school students participating in sports jumped almost 25 percent in the past five years, from 209,452 in 2002-03 to 257,798 in 2008-09, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. That only includes sports affiliated with the NJSIAA, which currently does not include crew or cheerleading, and students who play more than one sport are counted twice.

Based on a $100 per-student cost, a fee could raise $25 million per year just from sports.

Some of the enrollment increase reflects student population growth, but other factors include increased participation in youth sports, especially among girls, and student interest in college scholarships and a well-rounded college application. Districts must also consider Title IX equity issues in their ratio of boys to girls teams.

Oakcrest senior Candice Silipena played co-ed volleyball as an extracurricular activity in middle school at Mullica Township, then petitioned to add the sport when she got to high school. Girls volleyball began in her sophomore year. With limited experience, the team has lost most games, but they are improving.

"We've been close a few times," said Silipena, the team captain. "I like the team effort, the competition. We fight hard." She may look at colleges with volleyball, but it's not a priority.

Other team members said they wanted to try something new or have an afterschool activity in the fall. Sophomore Liz Coulter played softball for 11 years and joined the volleyball team because a friend plays. She went to a volleyball camp at Richard Stockton College, and said she may go there for college.

Freshman Stephanie Howard had played recreationally, but admits competitive volleyball is much more demanding.

"It gives us something to do," she said.

Balancing the budget

Budgeting involves several considerations.

"Girls volleyball offsets boys wrestling (for Title IX)," Greater Egg Harbor Regional superintendent Adam Pfeffer said. "We try to keep the budget flat, but every time you add a sport the costs increase for coaches, transportation, equipment. All of the sports suffer because they can't all get what they want. But the more kids are involved in things, the better it is for everyone."

With two high schools, GEHR has a large sports budget, almost $1.5 million this year for 21 team sports at each school. Girls volleyball was not a big budget item at Oakcrest and Absegami high schools because the schools already have gyms, and the equipment is not too expensive.

Budget information provided to the state Department of Education shows school districts spend about $200 million per year on athletics.

The annual athletic budgets do not include stadiums or other facilities, which are funded as capital projects.

Egg Harbor Township is spending $3.1 million on a sports renovation that includes artificial turf on the football stadium, fixing the track, and installing new bleachers, lighting, five new tennis courts and new fields for javelin, pole vault and triple jump.

Salaries are the biggest annual budget item. Coaches get stipends of several thousand dollars. Some schools have full-time athletic trainers as well as athletic directors. Beyond that, a district may have to rent time at a pool or ice hockey rink, then bus students to and from the site as well as to games. Equipment and uniform purchases are staggered to stabilize the budget.

Football remains the most expensive sport. Crew and ice hockey are expensive, but more likely to be subsidized by outside funds.

When Oakcrest parents wanted to add crew, they were told the district would pay for the coach, but not boats, which can cost $25,000 new, so parents raised the money themselves.

"You find people with a fondness for the sport who can help fund, and you be as creative as you can," said parent Lynne Kesselman, whose daughter rowed for Oakcrest. "It's an expensive sport to start up, but at least the boats will last decades."

But outside funding only works if families and supporters can afford it. Dennis Anderson, superintendent of the small K-12 Wildwood school district, said more than 80 percent of his students are eligible for the free or reduced-fee meal program. He sees extracurricular activities of all types as essential for educational and social growth, and to give students something to do after school when studies have shown young people are most likely to get into trouble.

"If you want to be a comprehensive high school, you have to offer extracurricular opportunities within reason," said Anderson, who also serves on the NJSIAA executive board. His athletic budget this year is $418,000.

Frank Baldachino, executive director of the Directors of Athletics Association of New Jersey, believes the lessons of sports are an important part of education.

"Colleges like extracurricular activities," Baldachino said. "And I think kids today need them more than ever to get exercise, a sense of belonging, learn teamwork."

Hammonton's Rehmann said sports motivates some students to perform better academically because they do not want to lose their eligibility to play if their grades drop below state requirements.

"Some players always have better grades during their season," she said.

Anderson believes the benefits outweigh the cost of sports and other activities.

"I know a few people will say get rid of them," he said. "But I think most people understand their value."

Contact Diane D'Amico:

609-272-7241