COVENTRY — The community has spoken, and the school committee decided unanimously during its meeting last Thursday that athletes at Coventry High School will get to participate in state-approved sports this fall, after all.
As it waits for the town to adopt a revised Fiscal Year 2021 budget, the Coventry School Committee, operating for now on its 2020 revenue, has had to cut nearly $1.8 million from its expenditures in order to balance its budget.
Among the items included in that reduction were athletics and extracurricular activities.
“There’s been a huge groundswell from our community to reinstate fall sports and some extracurricular activities,” Katherine Patenaude, chair of the school committee, said last week before the committee’s vote to restore boys and girls cross country, boys and girls soccer and girls tennis.
To fund the high school sports that the state is allowing to run this fall — that excludes football and volleyball, which will likely run later in the year — will cost around $42,000, School Finance Director Sarah Mangiarelli said. And while that’s a relatively small number, Jon Anderson, legal counsel to the school committee, warned that the committee could be taken to court for deficit spending.
“You have an obligation as the school committee to operate with a balanced budget,” Anderson said, adding that there’s nowhere else in the budget where cuts that wouldn’t be “incredibly painful” can be made.
Reinstating fall sports, despite the possible repercussions of deficit spending, is a risk Patenaude said she’s willing to take.
“I’m willing to take the chance and throw the dice and hope that the town council in fact puts forward a new proposal for this community that will tax our citizens and give us the $1.8 million,” she said.
In fact, a group of students and their parents have been working on raising money to at least offset the cost of running the permitted fall sports.
Disappointed over the decision to cut sports and clubs, the group as of last Thursday’s meeting had raised nearly $23,000 through a GoFundMe page and private donations. It also got the Rhode Island Interscholastic League to postpone Coventry’s deadline to register for the season to last Friday.
“I couldn’t be more proud of this community,” Jennifer Marszalek, a parent who set up the GoFundMe page, told the school committee, adding that the funds will be moved into an account dedicated to Coventry High School sports.
In addition to facing a $1.8 million deficit, the district expects to rack up significant coronavirus-related costs.
But while the school committee has an obligation to be fiscally responsible, committee member Luke Murray said, it’s also obligated to support students. And allowing sports is one way to do that.
“Sports are a universal release when things are stressful,” Murray said, recalling being deployed and seeing children who were “stripped of everything” enjoying soccer. “It gives us a sense of community, it gives us a sense of meaning and, in this situation, it will help our students achieve future goals.”
David Florio, school committee vice chair, echoed the importance of athletics to students.
“Kids are supremely anxious because they’re worried about their scholarships, they’re worried that they’re not going to be accepted to college because they’re not involved in sports,” Florio said. “I don’t care what it costs, I don’t care if we’re running a deficit.”
He said that if the committee were to authorize fall sports, then he’s confident everyone who’s been fighting for sports to be reinstated will get out and vote to approve a budget funding the schools.
The town council on Monday adopted a new budget to present to voters that does, in fact, fund the schools’ request.
“If the community votes against it, then I will sit here in a few months and we will make whatever cuts we have to make,” Murray said.
The school committee will revisit extracurricular activities at a future meeting.