MIFFLINTOWN - It was more than halfway through last July when Juniata County residents learned the future of their school district's athletic programs.
What some saw as - perhaps hoped would be - an anomaly instead may be the future of scholastic sports as we know it.
Juniata hardly planned on being a bellwether when its school board, facing the same budget shortfalls seen in other districts, decided the solution was to dispense with extracurricular activities. Or at least, the money part of it - the district came back and agreed to sponsor sports, as long as someone else paid the bill.
That led to imposition of what is believed to be the steepest athletic activity fee in the state, with no break granted for multiple sports, or multiple family members involved in sports. Juniata County athletes had to pay $250 per sport in 2011-12, and the sports boosters - often, the same families that just paid the fee - had to come up with the rest.
Here's the good news: Not one team failed to play out its season in the first year under this plan.
"I would say a (we had) rough start, but it went smoothly once we got going," said Jerry Auker, who stepped down as Juniata athletic director at the end of the school year. "We weren't without total funding all year. That made a tremendous difference."
Rod Hart, the veteran AD at East Juniata who announced his retirement at year's end, had an even rosier view.
"I would say it went better than what I thought it would. In fact, some coaches told me they actually like it better this way than the other way, which is interesting," he said.
"It probably would have been a lot better if there had been earlier warning, if there had been time to prepare," said Rick Musselman, whose tenure as district superintendent began at about the same time that the sports funding was cut. "I think the fall sports really took it on the chin. The winter and the spring sports had time to prepare."
No change of this magnitude can promise to be without problems, and there were issues in Juniata County from the start - disagreements over sports cooperatives, roster levels and playing time, and the competitive success - or lack thereof - of several of the district's teams.
The school district, thanks to money realized from unexpected state funding and the closure of Susquehanna Elementary School, was able to make a partial contribution after the sports year began, supporting some of the cost of salaries for athletics (and other activities), while restoring some academic cuts and placing some of the money in reserve.
Although it is rare that a high school sport is revenue neutral, there is income from sports - ad revenue, sponsorships, admission fees. The student fees were primarily directed toward people - payments to coaches and officials - while the booster money's biggest outlay was for transportation.
Booster clubs began for sports that had none previously, although some sports still remain unable to collect gate receipts because access to the field doesn't accommodate it. Some things worked, others didn't. Hopefully, Musselman said, the new year will begin with static funding by the school district based on the proposed budget.
"We have money in there basically to do the same thing we did this current year," he said. "We want to pay for the athletic directors. We also want to pay for the trainers. We are paying 45 percent of the coaches' salaries and benefits. The boosters are picking up the tab for everything else."
The school district also lights the football field on Friday nights, cleans the gym after basketball games and cuts the grass in the outfield.
"Those are costs as well that are not necessarily calculated in. So we are picking that up as well," he said, before offering a somewhat ominous reminder: "The budget isn't finally approved."
Both of the former athletic administrators say the teams at their respective schools will start the second year of self funding with money in the bank.
"As far as my end of the county, I would say all of them have been extremely successful," Hart said. "I've been in communication with my junior high boys basketball team - they are already working in preparation for next season. Some of them are in fantastic shape, but all of them are in good shape."
"They're all at least in pretty good shape," Auker agreed. "They did well last year. Some teams are pretty well set."
A program the board approved to generate new revenue through advertising has yet to deliver, although there was no cost to the district.
But as time progresses, the boosters will inherit more costs, as equipment, uniforms and other essential items require refurbishment or replacement.
"We're kind of in a period of grace right now," Hart said. "Everything is still fairly new and it's not broken."
The term "pay to play" often is applied to athletic activity fees, but that's not an accurate statement - the payment is to be a member of the team, and there is no guarantee any particular student will get into the game.
That was a bone of contention when the new policy was approved, but the school board, at the time, reiterated the fee was a membership fee, nothing more. Most teams used a great percentage of players out of need - rosters were smaller, in part thanks to the fee. Only one high profile positition on one team was obviously played by a rotating tandem rather than a designated starter who gave way only as needed.
"I know all our coaches made it pretty well clear that it didn't guarantee playing time," Auker said.
"Last summer when the issue came up at a board meeting, there was a lot of concern about that," Hart said. "There was a lot of noise made about it, but it was mostly a non-issue."
Musselman noted the district's position was a hands-off one, and that there are benefits to putting more kids on the field as well.
"It's not a district policy - we don't tell them how to coach," he said. "As a coach, do you sit there and say, 'I'm ... out here to try and win this season' or do you try and build a team and a program? I think a lot of your good coaches are going to try to do that.
"Do they want to win? Absolutely at the high school level. I think we have several coaches that are actually program builders."
If there was a problem, it was the turnout - something the district can only do so much about.
"My biggest concern of the whole year ... would be the kids whose family is not financially well off enough - some of those kids are not playing," Hart said, although a few businesses offered to help pay fees for those who could not afford it. "That basically worked out for the kids that identified they had an issue."
"The casual athlete didn't come out, more so in the junior high sports," Auker said. "It would be nice to see these kids come out. Maybe they'll find somebody very talented."
When the district's financial crunch caught athletics, one proposal the board dealt with was whether to merge the county's sports teams while maintaining two high schools. Because of a change in the way the PIAA counts student population for a cooperative agreement, classification for some teams would remain low; those that went up would only jump one level.
The district already had one co-op program - East Juniata hosts a football team that includes Midd-West students - and the proposal accepted by the board put both golf teams together at East Juniata, and opened the door for students from that school to play tennis for the first time, at Juniata.
Merging the teams would have, for the year just ended, given the school district the option of which league and PIAA district it wanted to compete in, because the schools didn't share that in common (both will be in the Tri-Valley League next year, although Juniata remains in District 6 while East Juniata is a member of District 4).
But when it was suggested the football, field hockey and wrestling teams were put on the table, things got heated - to the point that a coach nearly lost his job as the season began.
"I think the fascinating thing is we're looking at these co-ops and thinking they're coming about because of the financial situation. We would be having this same discussion about some of these teams whether or not this whole financial thing had occurred," Hart said, using field hockey as an example. "There's been communication for the past several years that there might have to be a co-op in one aspect or another."
"Football and wrestling are the same," Auker said - and the latter is merging for 2012-13.
"You've got to pay those guys and the coaches that are in the wrestling program a lot of credit," Musselman said. "At first it was all emotional. Then the reality sets in. Fiscally, it's basically kind of evolved on its own. We haven't pushed anybody.
"The district stayed out of it. That's the way we'd prefer for it to happen."
He said the biggest benefit of a cooperative is that the district could pay more; the money budgeted to the sport would go to one team, not two. And, he said, he believes the boosters will make the best decision for their kids.
Football remains an unknown after Midd-West complained when it had to make an additional payment to Juniata County this year, something that occurred when Juniata County enforced the pro rata sharing agreement the districts have had in place for years.
"They were basically paying a flat fee," Musselman said. "It's partially our fault because we weren't necessarily billing them."
And what will happen if Midd-West - which now provides more players to the team than East Juniata - chooses to opt out because of the higher cost?
"Once again, I think that's the boosters. I think they're going to wrestle with that," Musselman said.
A year ago, Juniata was one of a kind. But in the past month, school boards in Harrisburg and York have proposed the same draconian cuts that Juniata's board contemplated when its funding fell short. USA Today reports that more than 60 percent of high school athletes are charged a fee, with the average above $90. Nearby Mifflin County just upped its fee for next year to $135, more than triple what it was this year.
Meanwhile, costs for teams is likely only to go up, especially when it comes time to buy uniforms and other equipment - not to mention the cost of moving the teams around by bus.
"I think it's an unkown just like at the beginning of the school year. The sustainability of the programs really comes, once again, to the leadership of the boosters," Musselman said. "I don't see additional revenue coming into the district, and I don't have a budget approved for next year. It's hanging in the balance."
Auker said others will likely follow the Juniata model out of necessity.
"I think more districts are going to adopt something like this, and we're already seeing it," he said. "It's going to happen more as long as the funding from the state continues on the path that it is - we have no choice."
Hart, who saw more than most in his 16 years as an athletics administrator, compares the situation to the way parochial school sports operate.
"They have a sense of ownership. I think it's the same thing in athletics here."
And he believes it is the future of high school sports.
"I think so. Maybe I didn't think this way last summer, but to a point, I'm saying maybe this should have been the way it is all along."