Lennon, journalist hold meeting to gather ideas
by Tori Hamby
Charlotte-Mecklenburg athletes, parents and school officials gathered in southeast Charlotte on Tuesday, March 29, to discuss ways to keep middle school sports alive in the financially struggling school district, including establishing a private, nonprofit booster foundation.
Athletes – mostly from the district’s southern schools – donned sweatshirts and athletic gear from their respective schools and teams and held homemade signs declaring their support to the middle-school sports program. School board member Rhonda Lennon, who represents schools in north Mecklenburg, and The South Charlotte Sports Report Publisher Tripp Roakes, hosted the meeting.
“I believe very deeply in the concept of students becoming student-athletes,” Roakes told the crowd of more than 500 gathered at Christ Lutheran Church in Charlotte.
District Superintendent Peter Gorman placed the program on the chopping block for the 2010-11 school year, but high school and middle school sports survived after officials approved a $100 and $50 “pay to play” participation fees. Charlotte Bobcats owner and basketball legend Michael Jordan donated $250,000 last year to keep the programs alive.
However, the $3.4 million set aside for high school athletics in the 2011-12 budget requires that all money generated through high school participation fees and the $1 admission surcharge for game tickets go to high school athletes. This forces middle school programs to find the $1.25 million usually spent on middle school athletics by themselves.
That’s where Lennon and Roakes come in, as they search for a long-term solution to the funding problem. They not only want to guarantee that uniforms and equipment won’t gather dust next year, they want to ensure that talks of cutting middle-school sports never happen again.
“I don’t want middle sports to go away,” Lennon said during a question-and-answer session. “If they do, it would be next to impossible to bring them back.”
Roakes’ called for organizing a foundation that could potentially provide large corporations with sports-marketing opportunities throughout district middle schools in exchange for sponsorships. The district could have helped Jordan feel more appreciated after his program-saving donation last year, Roakes said.
“Every middle school gym needs to have a Bobcats banner hanging in it,” he said, evoking an enthusiastic applause from the crowd.
In addition to large corporate donations, the foundation also would accept smaller donations from parents, families and even athletes.
“Last year, there was no way for ‘Joe Citizen,’ who maybe is a CMS graduate who loves sports, to make a donation,” Lennon said. “We don’t have a way to handle a $100 check or a $500 check or a $1,000 check, or even a piggy bank full of money that two middle school students pulled together by selling lemonade.”
Roakes also suggested strengthening individual middle school booster clubs and increasing middle school participation fees to $150.
“There is nowhere in Charlotte that you can play something for $50,” Roakes said.
He is “completely against” having a private league or company come into the district to run the program for a profit, Roakes said.
Bailey Middle School Athletic Director Don Riehl, who did not attend the meeting, said he hopes all school officials recognize the importance of middle school sports as they continue to make important decisions about its future.
“Personally, I think it adds something to every school,” Riehl said, “not only for the kids who participate, but for the kids who come to watch. They have a place where they can come and be with friends and are supervised. It builds on to the overall atmosphere of the school.”
At least five school board members would have to vote in favor of the foundation for it to begin its arduous task, but the presence of board members Joe White and Tim Morgan at the meeting may indicate that officials seem receptive to the idea.
Lennon and Roakes say they plan to hold a second, similar meeting in the northern part of county in the near future. For more information, visit www.savemiddleschoolsports.com.