This story was corrected on Feb. 19. An explanation follows the story.
Freshman sports will live on for another year in county high schools after the Frederick County Board of Education last week rejected a proposal to cut the programs to save money following loud objections from parents.
A $547.3-million spending plan for fiscal 2014 proposed by Frederick County Public Schools Superintendent Theresa R. Albans that called for the elimination of ninth-grade boys football and boys and girls basketball in 10 high schools would have saved the school system $85,159.
But many parents and some school officials were concerned that the move, first reported in The Gazette on Feb. 7, would limit the number of students who would be able to participate in those sports. They voiced their concerns in a petition signed by more than 1,600 people, along with hundreds of emails sent to the school board.
The seven-member board voted 5-0 on Feb. 13 to continue funding for ninth-grade boys football and boys and girls basketball. Board members Jean Smith and James Reeder Jr. were not present at the meeting.
“I’m overjoyed that the board decided to keep [freshman sports],” said Marty Engel of Mount Airy, who organized the online petition drive. “When it comes down to it, it’s all about the kids and getting what’s best for them. I’m glad that we were able to come together and get something done for these kids.”
Engel, a football coach for the Linganore Oakdale Urbana Youth Athletic Association, said that he started the petition about after talking about the proposed cuts with his son, Thad, 13, an eighth-grader at New Market Middle School, and other student parents.
“Then [the petition] kind of just took off,” he said.
Thad said he has been looking forward to playing football at Linganore High School, where he will be a freshman next fall, since he was 7 years old.
“Probably since first or second grade, I’ve been thinking about playing high school sports and possibly going forward,” he said. “I really wanted to develop my skills [in ninth grade], so that I was ready to play in JV [junior varsity] as a sophomore.”
He said hopes to eventually play football at Penn State University, where both his parents went to college.
About a dozen of Thad’s teammates attended the Feb. 13 meeting to show their support for Engel’s effort.
“I felt that [the board] needed to take a step back and see the impact that the cuts would have,” he said.
Freshman boys football and boys and girls basketball are available at many of the county high schools. In the past, the funds allocated for ninth-grade sports were used for transportation and fees for sports officials.
But a lack of interest in some of the programs spurred the school system to consider their elimination.
Leslie Pelligrino, executive director of the school system, said in an interview before the board meeting that officials decided to cut freshman sports in lieu of increasing activity fees, which are currently $90 per student each season.
“We have seen over the last several years that we have been over budget in our sports,” Pelligrino said. “We’ve been trying to mitigate that.”
The school system’s sports budget was about $2.2 million for fiscal 2012.
Last year, five high school were not able to field freshman girls basketball teams, and three didn’t field freshman or junior varsity football teams, said
Perry Baker, supervisor of athletics and extracurricular activities.
Baker said that the county school system is one of 11 in the state with some form of freshman sports program. About 300 students participated in county freshman football, 119 in boys basketball and 52 in girls basketball, he said.
Board member James C. Reeder said at a workshop prior to the board meeting that if the school system was thinking about cutting the ninth-grade programs, officials should have introduced it earlier so that the community would have had more time to get used to it.
“I’m not sure we handled this well,” he said.
He said that he would be willing to fund the ninth-grade programs for one more year and make people aware that freshmen sports could be cut if participation doesn’t increase.
Albans said at the meeting that increasing the allocation for sports will mean cutting funding in other areas of the budget. The cuts will be made from other unspecified areas.
“... None of these choices are good choices,” she said. “It’s a difficult, difficult dilemma that we face.”
Reeder also said during the workshop that sports help build competition in ways that you can’t find in a classroom.
“I never learned anything by winning more than I did by losing,” he said.
Thad said that he was pleased with the board’s decision.
“I’m happy with the way that it turned out,” he said.
Correction: The first name of the football coach at the Linganore Oakdale Urbana Youth Athletic Association who started an online petition drive to restore ninth-grade sports to the Frederick County Public Schools budget was incorrect. Marty Engels organized the effort.