Parents speak out on sports program

NASHUA – Melissa Paladino has celebrated with her 9-year-old son when he has made sports teams but has also been there to hold his hand when he felt the disappointment of being cut.

“I don’t think that’s a bad thing,” Paladino said. Preparing students at a young age to realize that they won’t always get to make the team is an important part of growing up, she said.

Paladino was one of more than a dozen parents, coaches and students who spoke out against eliminating the current interscholastic middle school athletics program at Monday night’s budget hearing.

More than 100 people turned out for the hearing, which in past years, has typically been sparsely attended, with only a handful of questions from community members.

The proposal included in next year’s budget to eliminate the current middle school sports program and replace it with a youth sports program for all students had already faced strong opposition leading up to Monday’s hearing.

Many of those critics showed up to the hearing to express their concerns with the proposed new program, which many argued is unproven and would not be an adequate replacement for the current interscholastic program.

Currently, the city’s three middle schools are part of the Tri-County League and compete with other middle schools in the state.

Under the proposed budget being considered by the Board of Education, the city would no longer be part of that league.

In place of the current athletics structure, a middle school youth program would be created.

The new program would be available two days a week at each school and would include competitive teams within the schools, as well as community outreach program, mentoring and field trips to high school games.

Mike Osgood, a sixth-grade student at Elm Street Middle School, was a member of the school’s basketball team this year.

Standing at the podium wearing his Elm Street Eagles T-shirt, Mike said that as a younger member of the team, he knew he wasn’t going to get much playing time this year.

But he said he learned a lot from the older players and hoped that next year, he would see some action on the floor, but is now concerned he won’t have that opportunity to represent the school.

“Please give me the same chance so many other kids have already had,” he said.

Rick Anderson, coach of the girls soccer team at Elm Street Middle School, said one of the important aspects of the sports program is the requirement for students to maintain good grades to stay on the team.

Anderson said 18 of the 19 students on his team made the honor roll.

“Does the elimination of interscholastic sports make those standards irrelevant?” he asked.

Students also learn lessons about sportsmanship and discipline by playing for their school team, he said.

Parent Julie Goulet said a petition to save middle school athletics has been signed by 500 parents and 500 students. A petition was going around the audience during the meeting.

The proposal for the new program came out of the district’s performance-based budgeting system. A committee of administrators, teachers, coaches and parents came up with the proposal as a way to meet a 4 percent budget cut of $37,531,

Under the proposal, the entire middle school sports program would be cut for a savings of $98,763. The new program would be paid for using $46,232 of that money. The remaining $15,000 would pay for high school athletic equipment.

Superintendent Christopher Hottel is proposing a budget of $88.4 million for next year, which would be a 2.36 percent increase over this year. That goes beyond Mayor Donnalee Lozeau’s request for departments to stay within a 1 percent increase.

Peter Casey, director of athletics and head of the committee that made the recommendation, has said one of the primary benefits of the new program would be that more students would be able to participate in competitive sports.

It has been estimated that 600 students take part in middle school sports and another 659 students did not make the teams.

Geoff Norris, a parent of two, questioned whether this actually was a budget problem or a programmatic change being pushed through the budget.

Norris pointed out that in all of the proposals put forth by the athletic committee, interscholastic sports are eliminated, even if the athletic program is given more money.

“To push it through during budget time seems crazy to me,” he said.

Not all of the comments were against the proposed program.

Jeanne O’Brien, a health teacher and coach in the district, said the new program would present opportunities for more students to take part in sports and keep active.

Several speakers pointed out that all children in the city have other opportunities to play for sports teams through the city’s parks and recreations department and through other venues.

Some parents said they had heard that Nashua had already pulled out of the Tri-County League for next year. Hottel said that was not the case.

Once the public hearing portion of the meeting was over, board members were given an opportunity to ask question of the program managers about their proposals.

That was when board member Jack Kelley began firing questions at Casey.

Earlier in the meeting, Hottel said a letter had been sent to the Tri-County League in September inquiring about possibly pulling out. Kelley asked Casey why he didn’t go to the board before sending that letter.

“Under what authority did you cut middle school athletics?” Kelley asked.

Casey quickly responded, “Sir, we never cut middle school athletics.”

“They are no longer in the budget,” Kelley said.

Casey replied by saying that it is still a recommendation that is ultimately up to the school board. He added that a committee of 18 people came up with the recommendation.

As of 10 p.m., the meeting was still going on. It’s not known whether the board took any action on the budget. The next budget meeting is scheduled for Thursday night.

Although most of the comments were about the fate of middle school sports, there were concerns raised about other parts of the budget, as well.

Jackie Gray, a social studies teacher Elm Street, asked why all of the cuts being proposed are teachers and paraprofessionals and why no one looked at cutting administrators.

The net result of staffing cuts in the budget proposal would be eight teachers and 33 paraprofessionals.

The budget includes contracted salary increases for next year, including a 6.98 percent wage increase to compensate teachers. Gray pointed out that teachers took no increase in the first year of their new contract.

Joanne Lake, a paraprofessional in the district, questioned one of the cuts, which would eliminate a floating nurse position that was created last year. The cut would save $45,600.

“(Nurses) are a vital member of the staff, a vital member of the building,” she said.

Other cuts in the budget would reduce funding for summer school and for a suspension center for students, cutting custodians and raising the cost of high school bus passes to increase revenue.