Another Perspective on Booster Club Guidelines

August 13th, 2015 by wwcpresident

Wakefield, MA – The Wakefield Daily Item provided a valuable public service to the Town of Wakefield’s parents, taxpayers and voters by recently highlighting a current School Committee initiative to adopt so-called Booster Club Guidelines (see July 16th edition SC Works on Booster Policy). The article, however, was based on information and comments provided exclusively by school and town officials. What was missing from the story is the perspective of the Booster Clubs themselves, the entities which the School Committee seeks to regulate. Thus, the leadership of multiple Booster Clubs have come together to write to our neighbors, to share our viewpoint on this issue; specifically, the need for guidelines in the first place and what they should look like if any are adopted.

This conversation is particularly timely and important. Timely because the School Committee is poised to take up these proposed Guidelines again beginning with a Policy Subcommittee meeting on August 19. It is our understanding some School Committee members want to take a final vote on Guidelines as early as September. Important because many booster parents still have questions about the need for any Guidelines in the first place and all athletic Booster Clubs are united in their opposition to the Guidelines in their current form.

Many booster parents think we are solving a problem that does not exist or we are using a bazooka to kill a gnat. The Booster Club organizations believe that if the Guidelines as currently written are adopted, it will unalterably change the relationship between the School Department and the Clubs, could result in the dissolution of several Booster Clubs, and likely lead to a decrease in the amount of community-based financial support used to enhance the educational experience of our young people.

We do not believe anyone seeks those outcomes; not the School Committee or the Boosters or the parents of Wakefield. But these outcomes could come to pass as things stand now. Thus the collective leadership of the Booster Club organizations wish to bring this conversation to “the public square” to encourage more dialogue during the next few weeks, before anyone involved finalizes his/her opinion or any School Committee member casts a vote.

Below, we 1) remind the community of the role and mission of Booster Clubs, 2) provide our perspective on the dialogue that has occurred over the last several months with school officials, 3) describe the most serious issue that divides the School Committee and the Boosters, and, 4) present a solution to that issue.

#1: Role and Mission – Booster organizations exist to support high school athletics and the performing arts. They primarily raise funds to pay for necessary, not extravagant, goods and services that the school department budget cannot afford. We do not exist “chiefly to ensure that a team has coaches”, as one town official asserted recently according to the July 16th Item story. In fact, Booster Clubs exist to benefit students, not adults.

Booster organizations fund student benefits such as banquets, awards and game/performance refreshments and equipment such as musical instruments, tackling sleds, shotputs, and hockey socks. Booster clubs also buy ice time as well as provide unpaid administrative support, such as running tournaments. Booster Clubs also fund stipends for positions not funded by the school department budget. We do so because our athletic programs desperately need these positions in order to provide sufficient and quality instruction as well as a safe environment for our children. And we have always funded these positions at the request of, and with the full knowledge and support of, school officials.

Booster Clubs can range from small non-profit organizations to a parent simply inheriting a checkbook and an empty bank account. The non-profits, or 501(c)(3)s, usually have more infrastructure such as elected officers, boards, charters, and a larger parent base from which to draw volunteers (and fundraising capacity) because of higher student participation levels. But the more typical booster club is led by the parents of captains, working with as few as 6-8 parents of other team members. Our only objective is to fill ongoing gaps in the funding needed to make the extra-curricular experiences of our high school youth rewarding and memorable.

#2: The Dialogue To Date – Regrettably, the original impetus for creating guidelines, dating back at least to the Fall of 2012, stemmed from a faulty premise and then, in the view of many parents, further spiraled out of control. The School Committee was worried that Booster Clubs were “hiring and paying” for additional staff outside the purview of the School Department. Well, Booster Clubs do not “hire” anyone, paid or unpaid, and the only “paying” Booster Clubs do is provide monetary recognition to volunteer coaches at the end of the season, much like any parent does when they hand a Honey Dew gift card to a child’s baseball or softball coach.

This erroneous impression then opened the door to a complicated and unsatisfying discussion of liability – ours and the Schools. The Guidelines also talked about issues many boosters feel are benign such as transparency, communication, facility use, and food procedures. They also addressed fundraising, donations, and gifts. Many booster parents feel the School Committee is encroaching on independent entities. Other booster parents feel the School Committee is legislating for the sake of legislating. And, all of us have felt the process has left much to be desired at different points — Booster organizations were not consulted at key points.

However, in April, 2015, School Committee member Greg Liakos and Principal Rich Metropolis convened a small working group of Booster representatives in what has been cordial and cooperative process. But any agreements reached by that working group are now threatened because no agreement has been reached on the most controversial Guideline offered by the School Department.

#3 The Single Most Serious Issue

Over the years, and always at the request of school personnel, Booster Clubs have rewarded volunteer coaches and instructors for their efforts after the end of the season. The general practice is for a Booster Club, only after paying all its other expenses (see examples above), to give these volunteers a gift or stipend, based on how much money was left over. No muss, no fuss. Until now.

The School Department is now concerned that this longstanding practice, used for years by Booster Clubs to recognize and reward staff (that the school department acknowledges it needs but cannot afford to pay), opens up potential liability issues. It has been asserted that problems could arise if there was a cause for legal action by an individual who is employed (but unpaid) by one entity (the School Department) yet paid by another entity (the Booster Club). The School Department asserts that any risk would be eliminated if the Booster Clubs simply allowed the School Department to pay (using Booster Club funds) as well as employ the individual.

While the Booster Clubs still have unanswered questions about the legal analysis that resulted in this recommendation, most of us would not object to changing “who cuts the check” so long as such a change would not also fundamentally change fundraising patterns and practices that make the Booster Clubs successful in the first place. And that is the rub. The School Department’s proposed solution to

the problem they identified creates an immediate threat to how we work. In seeking to solve the liability problem, the School Committee is creating a larger problem….if the current language in the Guidelines is adopted.

Let us look at the proposed Guidelines under which the School Committee wishes Booster Clubs would operate when it comes to these volunteers. We look at the six requirements and analyze each.

a) Allow the schools to hire and supervise this additional volunteer staff

No problem. This is a non-issue. At no time has a Booster Club ever independently hired a single person to walk onto a field, court, rink or stage to provide assistance and instruction to the high school student body. Boosters understand that the Schools are the hiring authority for administrators, teachers, coaches, and other personnel that support the mission of the Wakefield Public Schools.

b) Provide the funds to pay for them

No problem. This happens now; this has been one of our roles for years. While many of us believe the School Committee should present to Town Meeting the full costs associated with these extra-curricular activities and seek sufficient funding for this staff, we recognize the Committee is elected to weigh competing fiscal priorities. The School Committee has chosen not to ask Town Meeting to pay for sufficient numbers of coaches.

c) Funnel those funds to the School Department so that the Schools, not the Booster Clubs, disburse the money to these individuals

No problem, with a condition. Booster Clubs want to be able to designate that monies turned over to the School Department for the purposes of paying currently unpaid staff could only be used for that intended purpose. At our insistence, the proposed Guidelines were amended to account for this.

d) Cover any benefits due these individuals

Problem. No one has been able to explain to us why benefits need to be paid to volunteers, what benefits are involved, their legal basis, and the fiscal impact. The Booster Clubs cannot agree to open-ended requirement without more specific information being provided.

e) Commit to a dollar amount i.e., a salary amount at the beginning of the fiscal year, and,

f) Provide those funds by the end of the season or, worst case, the end of the fiscal year i.e., June 30.

BIG Problem. These two requirements will completely undo Booster Club fundraising patterns and practices that have been in place for years. Moreover, these two requirements will discourage parents from joining Booster Clubs once they realize that membership now comes with a formal fiduciary responsibility. Without committed parents, Booster Clubs will cease to exist. Without Booster Clubs, tens of thousands of dollars raised through voluntary contributions will disappear. Without those funds, award banquets will not be held, musical instruments and sports equipment will not be purchased, and the overall extra-curricular experience will degrade substantially. Eliminating liability concerns is a laudable, perhaps necessary, goal; but creating these repercussions cannot be what anyone intends.

Under the current system, volunteer coaches receive a stipend, the size of which is determined entirely by the success of that year’s fundraising activities. Some years it might be larger, some years it might be smaller depending on how many car washes were held or calendars sold. Under the new system, volunteer booster parents are required to commit to a salary budget before they have raised their first dollar. Even worse, they will be held accountable, in ways no parent volunteer should ever be, for a formal obligation to pay the School Department. And accountability will be enforced by the following – if sufficient funds to meet this year’s salary budget aren’t raised, those additional coaches will not be hired next year.

Under the current system, each sport fundraises in season – football in the fall, basketball in the winter, baseball in the spring. Under the new system, all sports will be incentivized to begin fundraising in the fall and to keep at it all school year long. This will maximize the amount of time to raise money to pay back a debt assumed when that Booster Club committed in advance to a salary budget. Otherwise you create a system where fall sports have 10-11 months to raise money to pay back the school department but spring sports have only 4 months before the end of the fiscal year to raise funds.

Under the current system, the financial “thank-you” to these volunteers is only paid out after the needs of the students are met. This is why Booster Clubs exist, to enhance the student extra-curricular experience in ways the tax-supported school budget cannot. Under the new system, Booster Clubs will be forced to first raise dollars for adults (i.e., the salary obligations) before the kids needs can be funded. .

#4: An Alternative Solution

There is an alternative. The Booster Clubs are suggesting a “Pay It Forward” approach. It would work like this:

* The School Department would address the liability issue they identified by covering the cost of volunteer stipends for the coming school year September 2015 – June 2016

* The Booster Clubs would fundraise in season from August to June as they always have

* At the end of the school year next June, each Booster Club would assess their bank balance, after meeting student needs, and commit to a figure that it can now afford for salaries for the upcoming 2016 – 2017 school year based on money already in the bank

* Each Booster Club would then write a check to the School Department.

* Every year thereafter the Booster Clubs would raise money in the current year to pay in advance for the next year’s salaries.

* No muss, much less fuss than the School Committee’s proposal.

Under this scenario, the Booster Clubs can continue their good work without disrupting their tried-and-true methods of volunteerism and fundraising. And the School Committee can address a concern it identified as an important public policy issue. Most importantly, the kids who play on our athletic fields or perform on our stages won’t be impacted one bit.

The School Committee has informally expressed reluctance to fund the “bridge year” we propose in our solution. If that remains the case, then it is the responsibility of the School Committee to suggest an alternative that does not destroy the program they say they are trying to protect. We suggest there may be no better time to fund a bridge year than now, given the X% (or $xx million) increase Town Meeting voted for the School Department budget this past May.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may or may not be good public policy but if you are going to change a longstanding practice to address a hypothetical fear, you can’t create a worse problem than the one you are trying to solve.

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