Denise Durkin, whose twin daughters participate in basketball, soccer and track and field, said athletics has been an important part of their lives. Her daughters are pictured above with the Plattsburgh Hornets girl’s varsity basketball team.
For some, the new Plattsburgh City School District budget is cutting into something deeper than funding.
As parents and coaches in the school district struggle to figure out ways to work with less, one thing remains clear to them — the education, and the health, of local children has been sacrificed.
C. Joseph Staves, director of physical education, athletics and health services at Stafford Middle School in Plattsburgh, has made it his life’s work to cultivate the fitness of his students.
“The most important aspect of our lives is our physical well being,” Staves said.
The latest round of voter-approved budget cuts took a large bite out of the district’s athletics program, resulting in the loss of coaching assistants, Class “B” modified sports and gymnastics.
And that, Staves said, is detrimental to children.
“All the cuts people talk about, in education, city and state government, are taking away the programs that benefit people’s well-being, whether it’s fitness programs for seniors or children, or athletics in schools,” Staves said. “People see that sort of thing as a luxury, and it’s not.”
Staves stressed that athletics play an integral role in correcting some of the issues facing society today.
“We have an obesity epidemic,” Staves said. “Taking kids out of sports makes their lives more sedentary.”
Staves also said that being involved in activities like athletics helps youngsters learn teamwork, social interaction skills and problem solving and that involvement can also decrease drop-out rates.
“Whether it’s athletics, music or drama, they all provide opportunities for young people to develop those skills,” Staves said. “We can either pay for it now, or we can pay for it later.”
That statement is rooted in Staves’s observation that every successful society has a successful educational system. By not investing in our youth now, we might be investing in future bad behavior.
But he isn’t the only person in Plattsburgh who’s worried about the consequences of the budget cuts.
Denise Durkin said her twin daughters will be juniors in Plattsburgh High School this year and that soccer, basketball, and track and field have been an important part of their lives.
“People voted for this, and I have to wonder why they wouldn’t want children to benefit from programs like this,” Durkin said. “I have to wonder what kind of citizens we’re creating.”
As someone who has attended monthly booster club meetings and helped out with track and field, special projects, fundraising and handling the concession stand at sporting events, Durkin said she can attest to the positive effects of athletics on kids.
She also said the coaching staff at PHS truely cares for its athletes, and that cutting assistant coaching positions is not only unfair to students, it’s also unsafe.
“Kids have enough pressure with school, grades and social interaction,” Durkin said. “Now there’s more pressure on these kids to perform with less. Sports should be fun, without that pressure to push beyond their abilities.”
With fewer coaches available, team sizes will have to be reduced to compensate, resulting in some kids being turned away, which will inevitably lead to less substitutes for those who make the teams.
“As it gets more competitive, we’ll start to see more injuries,” Durkin said. “I pay taxes too, and I’m willing to pay a little more to have more athletes.”
Much like the budget cuts, competition always has winners and losers. But sometimes, victories can occur in the unlikeliest of places.
When gymnastics was cut in the latest budget upheaval, Bob Bunnell became part of a fight to raise $8,000 to save the program.
He and others attended a school board meeting, and asked for permission to keep gymnastics alive if the money could be raised.
“The night we presented our proposition to the board it was approved, and we had about five board members and a couple others at the meeting give us money on the spot,” Bunnell said. “Joe Staves was the first to give us money.”
Bunnell, whose daughter coaches gymnastics at Peru Central and granddaughter hopes to participate in Plattsburgh City School’s Gymnastic Program when she’s old enough, explained that gymnastics in the area is a small community of sorts, and that high school gymnastics teams from Peru and Beekmantown helped raise money to keep the program at PHS going.
The students, along with some parents, began selling “I support gymnastics” pins earlier this summer.
After two months, they had managed to raise about $2,700—a good start, but not nearly enough. With the Aug. 15 season start looming, Bunnell and others were worried they wouldn’t pull through.
And then, their luck changed.
After receiving a check for $6,223.57 from the Mari-Rae Sopper Memorial Fund—a fund set up in the memory of gymnast Marie-Rae Sopper, who was one of the 64 people killed when American Airlines Flight 77 was hijacked and flown into the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001—the program was saved.
So now, the gymnastics program at PHS will remain intact for another year, but Bunnell is afraid that the overwhelming support for the program could send a negative message to the school board.
“The good news is, we were able to fund the program this year,” Bunnell said. “The bad news is the board might think we can fund ourselves from now on.”
As with other cuts, such as the elimination of field trips and the Odyssey of the Mind program, Plattsburgh City School Superintendent James Short said the decision to cut gymnastics was not easy.
“We had to look at the number of students impacted and the number of people involved,” Short said. “If it’s soccer versus gymnastics, we have a huge soccer program, so painfully, we have to cut the smaller program.”
Short added that the motivation of the people who kept gymnastics alive is impressive.
“They were delivered very bad news from me, and I have to give it to them,” Short said. “They raised the money.”
Other areas of athletics haven’t been so fortunate, though.
Stafford Middle School used to have two sections for modified sports, which meant any student interested could participate. Now that the Modified “B” section has been eliminated, half the kids who would like to participate won’t be able to.
The City of Plattsburgh offers recreational sports programs for kids, but not every family can afford to let their kids participate.
The effect, Short said, is that some children will have to look elsewhere for recreational activities.
“For a long time, schools have filled these gaps because we know the positive results,” Short said.
“A school is represented by what a community keeps it as. A school is only as good as a community makes it.”