By KATE STONE LOMBARDI
Published: July 20, 2008
WHEN members of the Mount Vernon High School varsity basketball team attend a press conference, it’s usually after securing another championship. The Knights have won 8 New York State championships, 4 New York State Federation Class AA championships and 25 Section 1 titles.
But the student athletes who came to City Hall to hear community officials speak on a recent morning had an agenda even more urgent than clinching the top spot. They wanted to know whether their team — or any other team in the Mount Vernon City School District — would have a season at all.
In the spring, Mount Vernon residents twice voted down the school budget. By state law, the district must now operate on a contingency budget. Nearly $5 million has been slashed from the $192.3 million budget originally proposed; it now stands at $187.4 million. Along with some teaching and administrative staff members, the entire interscholastic sports program was cut.
“I honestly couldn’t believe it,” said Mark Cole, 17, a shooting guard for the Knights who will be a senior. “I’ve been playing basketball all my life in Mount Vernon. If they get rid of it, I don’t know what I’d do. I want the chance to get a scholarship and go to college.”
Another senior, Odayne Clarke, 18, a power forward for the team, described basketball as “a one-way ticket to college.”
While the students coped with their shock, Mayor Clinton Young announced the formation of Save Our Sports, a group to raise private funds to pay for school sports. Mr. Young, the Mount Vernon Board of Education, the PTA Council, the Mount Vernon Educational Foundation and others have united to rally residents, high school alumni, foundations and anyone willing to help restore athletics to the city’s school district.
The district spent $1.1 million on athletic programs last year, but the group hopes to raise $950,000 to finance the entire sports program for the coming school year, including seventh- and eighth-grade teams, and boys’ and girls’ modified, freshman, junior varsity and varsity high school teams. More immediately, the district needs $300,000 by Aug. 10 to finance fall sports, including football.
Mount Vernon is known for its standout athletics. Seven of the high school’s athletes have gone on to play in the National Basketball Association, most recently Ben Gordon of the Chicago Bulls. Mr. Gordon is helping to raise money for Save Our Sports.
But the high school is also plagued by low graduation rates — 55 percent of students graduate in four years. Nineteen percent of students live below the poverty level. The community has a high-need population but insufficient resources, said W. L. Sawyer, Mount Vernon’s school superintendent. He said he recently discovered social studies books being used by seventh to 12th graders that listed Jimmy Carter as president.
Dr. Sawyer said he understood the benefits of the sports program but had to put academic needs first. By cutting sports, he said, the district could retain a prekindergarten program that was critically needed for at-risk children.
“You should never be in a situation where you have to decide between throwing out into the water your mom or your brother,” Dr. Sawyer said. “But the reality is that when it comes to children and their capacity for learning, logic dictates that you try to make those decisions that keep you far away from harming the instructional classroom.”
Charles Stern, president of the Board of Education, said that eliminating interscholastic sports had been a difficult decision. The board, he said, was “deeply aware” of the implications of the cuts, noting that children who participate in sports tend to perform better academically and that children who have structured activities between 3 and 6 p.m. tend to stay out of trouble.
Several coaches at the high school stressed the far-ranging benefits of organized athletics.
“People need to realize that athletics is a great motivator,” said Patrice Moore, coach of the girls’ basketball team. “When I look at the basketball players that participated with me at Mount Vernon High School, we are some successful women doing successful things.”
Ms. Moore said that for many children, coaches acted as surrogate parents and had the opportunity to positively influence students’ lives. She noted that none of her players had ever gotten pregnant.
Ric Wright, the boys’ varsity football coach, said that even before the current budget problems, athletics had been underfinanced at Mount Vernon, pointing out that the school had no lacrosse, hockey or field hockey teams.
“Every coach understands we’re dealing with student athletes, and the student comes first,” he said. “But in this particular community, kids need extra help. Everyone knows that sports are the heart and soul of Mount Vernon.”
Mayor Young, who ran track as a student at Mount Vernon High, said that the issue was not a debate between athletics and academics. He emphasized that sports were critical to the vast majority of young people who would not play professionally, but who would gain leadership skills, learn teamwork and develop self-esteem through their participation. Mr. Young said half his staff at City Hall are former varsity athletes.
Dr. Sawyer said the challenge to the Mount Vernon schools was far bigger than sports financing.
“Other schools are looking at whether they can afford new scoreboards, while I’m looking at textbooks,” he said. “Urban school districts face specific challenges, and the needs of our children by far outweigh the allocations.”
Indeed, the only other school district in Westchester to defeat a school budget twice this year is Bedford, one of the county’s wealthier districts. (In that case, voters were disgruntled over the decision to give Debra Jackson, the outgoing superintendent, a $650,000 separation agreement and health care coverage for life.) Among the cuts in Bedford’s contingency budget: delays in buying new desks, equipment and buses, and delays in financing capital projects, including a refurbished high school track and an expanded play area at an elementary school.
In Mount Vernon’s case, budgets in the last few years were passed by increasingly thin margins. This year, school board officials said, the economy and gas prices heavily influenced beleaguered taxpayers.
Mr. Stern, the board’s president, said that while the board was committed to helping to raise private funds to restore interscholastic sports, the more pressing issue was why Mount Vernon needed charitable fund-raisers to provide programs that other students in Westchester receive routinely.
“The underlying issue is an inherently unfair funding formula for public education,” he said. “Historically, Mount Vernon schools have suffered under an antiquated system of funding from the state and federal level. It is pitting children against property owners, and right now, both are suffering.”