Sports may cost Hopatcong High School athletes more than sweat in 2011-12.
The decision came after almost an hour of heated debate between board members and Athletic Director Tom Vara.
"We have to move in this direction at some point in time to supplement activities and sports and arts programs," Superintendent Dr. Charles Maranzano said.
The policy committee, which includes board members Mary Louise Baker, Patricia LoBue and Joanne Passerini, will work alongside Vara over the next year, examining other area schools' pay-to-play programs before making a recommendation.
Sparta High School charges $325 per student per sport. Mount Olive High School asks $125 per student all year. Randolph High School charges $100 per student each year.
Vara sees the writing on the wall.
"I know we're going to have to go there at some point because we're in some tough economic times," he said.
The state slashed Hopatcong's school aid for the upcoming year by $1.7 million. Voters also shot down the school board's budget proposal in May, prompting the borough council to slash $730,000 from the plan before approving it.
The board, as a result, cut more than 20 positions, and with them freshman sports, golf, field hockey, the marching band, the German language program, some advanced placement courses and other programs for the fall. A few programs—such as the marching band and golf—will return this year thanks to parent fundraising.
Board members Joan Reilly and Susan Madar voted against the policy-exploration motion — which board member Clifford Lundin proposed as an alternative to Reilly's first motion, to charge students $75 per sport and families a maximum of $150 per season. Reilly later amended her own motion to $50 per sport and $100 maximum per family per season.
"I think it's this year or don't even bother," said Reilly, who essentially wanted to stash the money in case the athletic department's faced with deeper cuts next year. "This year's budget won't be any better than next year's budget. I think we have to start this year."
Board member Patricia LoBue opposed the idea of forcing the fees on families with short notice. The high school's fall athletic season begins in a few weeks, Vera said.
"I don't want to railroad this without having specific things put down on paper," LoBue said. "We don't have a specific plan.
Lundin asked the policy committee to consider several exceptions. He didn't want to charge students in parent-funded programs or the reduced-lunch system. He also didn't think the money should to go into the board's "general treasury," he said. "That's the game that Trenton plays."
Lundin was considerably miffed at Gov. Chris Christie, whose steep cuts have drawn ire from the teacher's union and school districts statewide.
"The board needs consensus," Lundin said. Board members Mary Louise Baker and Passerini were absent. "The public needs to know. And we would not be in this position if it wasn't for Lord Christie down in Trenton.
"The things that are coming out of Trenton are forcing boards to make decisions that we shouldn't have to make."
Vara didn't fear Hopatcong would lose many high school athletes due to the fees. He worried about policy-related issues: Who would be in charge of money collection? How would families of players who either quit or got injured mid-season be compensated? What deadlines would be set? Where would the money go?
"It's a matter of timing," Maranzano said. "And I think if you look at both sides of it, there are very few school districts that have experience [with pay-to-play]. And yet, if you put it off a year, would that give you enough time to make a stronger decision?"