Officials at the two Pickerington high schools estimate that participation in sports could drop by as much as 30 percent once new pay-to-participate fees are implemented, Central athletics director Pete Laihr said.

Officials at the two Pickerington high schools estimate that participation in sports could drop by as much as 30 percent once new pay-to-participate fees are implemented, Central athletics director Pete Laihr said.

The fee increases, approved by the school board last week, more than double the current cost to play a sport and do not include a family cap. They are part of a broader plan to cut $13-million from the district's budget.

The new fees are expected to increase the district's annual revenue from $325,000 to $449,000, thereby reducing district general fund costs, although those figures could be affected if participation is significantly lower, as expected.

Fees also are increasing for participation in other extracurricular activities such as marching band, theater and chorale.

"Thirty percent, huh? I believe it because I'm already seeing a drop-off in (the number of athletes in) our weight room," North football coach Tom Phillips said. "They probably came up with that number by talking with people from Newark and Reynoldsburg."

The new fees, which will be among the highest in central Ohio, will be instituted for the 2011-12 school year. Reynoldsburg and Newark previously had implemented similar hikes before eventually reducing their fees through donations raised by the booster clubs. Reynoldsburg athletes paid $240 per sport this school year, down from $500 in 2009-10.

Pickerington's fees for fall sports are due by the end of the second week of practice in August.

"That does give families a little time to plan," North athletics director Mark Aprile said. "It's not a solution, though."

A flat fee of $500 per student per sport has been set for participation in high school sports, up from $210. The cost of playing a sport at the junior high is increasing from $135 to $325.

"The absence of a family cap is what's so troubling to me," said Phillips, whose teaching position was one of dozens eliminated for the 2011-12 school year. "Look at the (Jeff and Michelle) Olszewski family. They had four kids playing high school sports last year, and I know at least two of them were three-sport kids. Do the math. You're talking almost $5,000."

Aprile said participation initially dropped when pay-to-participate fees first came to Pickerington but eventually rebounded to former levels. He isn't so sure a similar recovery would happen this time.

"You've got to think somewhere between $210 and $500 is the breaking point," Aprile said. "We just don't know where that line is."

In another cost-cutting measure approved by the board of education on March 14, the contracts of both Aprile and Laihr will be suspended on Aug. 1.

"The plan hasn't come out yet, but the thinking appears to be having one person oversee both athletic departments," Laihr said, adding that both he and Aprile are eligible to apply. "I would have to see the job description to be able to comment further, but I'm not so sure it could work. I don't know. Maybe they're seeing things we haven't."

A decision also hasn't been reached on whether to place another levy on the ballot in August. But even if that happens and voters approve it, Aprile said the fee increase would remain in place for 2011-12 because the new revenue from a levy would not begin coming in until January 2012.

"There's just a lot of unknowns right now," Aprile said.

Other sports-related problems resulting from the board-approved changes still need to be addressed, school officials said.

One is how financial hardship cases will be handled. School officials say that about 6 percent of student-athletes from one of the high schools qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches. Concluding the high school day at 1:40 p.m. next year is another sticking point. Students currently are released at 2:09 p.m.

"I can come up with question after question, really," Phillips said. "Are we going to have the depth to compete? I don't know. If you look at the established programs like (Hilliard) Davidson or Central, they've got 100 kids. We had about 70 last year, and if we lose 30 percent like they're saying, we might be down to 50 or so. That makes for a tough situation.

"Another challenge is going to be when do we practice? Two of my assistants teach in the elementary schools, which don't let out until 3:40. If we wait to start practice, we're probably in danger of losing even more kids," he said.

"There's talk of using that time with a study table, but that makes for an awfully long school day. And if we don't practice right after school and the kids go home, then there's the issue of them making it back. Some of our kids aren't driving yet and others might not have access to a car."

Phillips and other coaches seem to be in agreement that student-athletes and their families will be far more selective in choosing a sport. They say the typical athlete engaged in three sports now may be forced to choose a favorite and drop the others, and even that might be a best-case scenario.

"I'm sure some might not play at all and some will enroll in another district," Laihr said.

Various fundraising ideas are being discussed with booster clubs. Pickerington currently does not have a single fundraiser that ties into all sports like bingo night does in Reynoldsburg, Aprile said. In that district, parents also can lower the fees for their children by volunteering to work the fundraisers.

"The district lawyers are looking into that," Laihr said. "But kids can't really have individual accounts, and we have to be careful with our 501(c) (3) status (as a nonprofit enterprise)."

Also at risk are coaching positions and certain levels of sports such as freshman teams. An athletics department's biggest expenditures are for supplemental pay for coaches and transportation.

"I don't know if we'll lose entire programs or not, but we may lose levels of sports," Laihr said. "And certain sports will be hit harder than others. Take track (and field), for example. I'm not saying it's not competitive, but a lot of those kids are in it for the social aspect. With the fee increase, that's no longer going to be an option for some parents, even though it's been a good thing for their son or daughter and they've gotten a lot out of it."

The school board, which passed the fee increases by a 3-2 vote, adopted the flat-fee schedule over a tiered proposal that could have resulted in fees as high as $650 for sports such as basketball, golf and swimming.

Other options could have been even more drastic. South-Western City Schools is the only local district that has canceled an entire sports season. It did not field teams in the fall of 2009.

"Things could be worse, I suppose," Phillips said. "Hats off to the district for saving sports. They could have gone and done a Grove City."