Photo credit: Erick Gibson

Increasingly, parents are footing the bill for that “dessert,” proving a boon to schools in wealthier neighborhoods—but leaving the less privileged feeling deprived.

Take the booster club at Wheaton, which was dormant for years until parent Chris Culkin revived it last school year. Interest has been minimal, he says, among the mostly Hispanic and African-American parents at the economically disadvantaged school. Culkin thinks that’s because many of those parents don’t understand the club’s role.

His goals this year are to educate parents and revive a sense of school spirit that has been missing for years. He also hopes to raise at least enough money to fix broken stadium speakers. “We’re focusing on the gotta-have things rather than the nice-to-have things,” he says.

Big-ticket items, including maintenance for the school’s worn fields and replacing a baseball scoreboard that has been broken for years, are low priorities because the school is scheduled for renovation in 2014, he says.

Einstein’s Giblin says parents at the Kensington school are resigned even as they complain about the poor condition of its fields. “People understand the costs involved,” he says. “We just don’t have the money.”

Einstein parent Nancy Hanlon of Silver Spring says students are aware of the inequities among schools. Her lacrosse-playing son and his teammates have commented on the higher-quality equipment they see at other Bethesda-area schools, she says. 

The ability to pay for field maintenance is a clear marker separating the haves from the have-nots. “Condition of the fields is the single greatest inequity among schools,” Beattie acknowledges.

MCPS officials say maintaining grass fields can run $25,000 annually per school, although Churchill spent nearly $107,000 on field preparation in 2009-10; Whitman, $45,000; and B-CC, about $44,000. Less affluent schools spent much less: Einstein, $3,300; Silver Spring’s Springbrook High, $6,700; Gaithersburg’s Watkins Mill, $5,900.

Because field maintenance is such a huge cost, MCPS eventually plans to replace all high school stadium fields with artificial turf. The turf is hugely expensive at the outset: It costs a minimum of $625,000 per field—and with site preparation, that figure can top $1 million, according to Joe Lavorgna, an MCPS consultant and former acting director of the district’s facilities management. (See page 68.)

But supporters of the move say it will provide long-term savings in maintenance and provide equitable playing fields for all schools.   

In the interim, booster clubs have stepped into the void, helping to cover the costs of the grass fields, as well as other essentials that schools can’t afford, including fencing and security for athletic events. Booster parents say their donations have even become an informal revenue line item in high school athletic budgets.

Booster club donations are not considered when MCPS determines a school’s allocation, Beattie says. He has worked for years to ensure that booster clubs are forthcoming about how much they support schools. “We don’t care how much they spend,” he says. He just needs the real figures to demonstrate the true cost of athletics.

Parents and athletic directors say wealthier schools are expected to raise more through gate receipts and booster donations than other schools. Burchett is serving his first full year as president of Richard Montgomery’s booster club, and he says “it’s eye-opening. …The booster club is supposed to be doing up and above what MCPS does.”

Booster club officials say they strive to be equitable, paying for items that will benefit as many sports as possible. At Einstein, the booster club helped pay for a weight room renovation and a security fence around the baseball field, and it purchased a new sound system for the football stadium. “Soccer, field hockey—all use that stadium, as well. A lot of teams use that weight room,” Giblin says. “We don’t try to get sports-specific.”

At some schools, teams raise their own money, in addition to receiving booster funding. Noland, the football coach at B-CC, says his team holds car washes and sells cards that offer discounts at local businesses. The team has raised about $10,000 to pay for 45 top-rated football helmets. “We’re not as dependent on the booster club,” Noland says.

Walter Johnson’s All-School Booster Club raises money for drama, music, art and school clubs in addition to athletics, an unusual practice. When distributing funding, it treats the school’s teams and clubs “equally,” Amos says. “It all depends on your need.”

Last year, that school’s boosters distributed $45,000 to 25 groups, with $20,000 going to the athletic department. Since clubs for extracurricular activities such as drama and music don’t receive funding from MCPS, “we end up helping the clubs a little more,” says Sue Cook Christakos, the booster club president.

In recent years, the Whitman All Sports Booster Club has spent roughly $15,000 on a scoreboard for the baseball and field hockey field, $10,000 for a fully automated timing system for track and field, and several thousand dollars for equipment for the school’s new gymnastics team. It also provides each sport with $600 each year. The club will probably have to spend about $50,000 in coming years for a new drainage system to fix problems with the stadium field.

“That is something the county will not be paying for,” says Todd Morrison, president of Whitman’s booster club. “If we want to do that, we’ll have to pay for it.”

Like booster parents from other area schools, Morrison doesn’t begrudge the role the clubs have come to play in funding high school athletics. He says Whitman is lucky to have a school community that can afford to help out.

“They could still put on sports programs without us probably,” he says, “but there would be a lot of holes.”

Julie Rasicot lives in Silver Spring. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, among other publications. To comment on this story, email comments@bethesdamagazine.com.

Julie Rasicot

Julie Rasicot can be reached at julie.rasicot@bethesdamagazine.com