By MICHAEL KELLY
Recorder Sports Staff
FONDA -- Just a little more than seven months ago, the fields behind the K-12 building of the Fonda-Fultonville Central School District bustled with activity.
At the track surrounding the football field were hundreds of athletes participating in the Fonda Relays, a gathering of more than 20 track and field teams from across the region for a midseason test of strength that has gone on for more than 20 years.
At the same time, eight junior varsity and varsity clubs took to the pair of softball diamonds further out in the sports complex at F-FCSD. With cars parked all over the hill adjacent to the diamonds, the eight teams and the F-FCSD community poured into that area that day to take part in the Ronald D. Papierniak Memorial Softball Tournament, a collection of games used to raise money for scholarships to be given to graduating F-FCSD student-athletes, a scholarship program named in honor of a recently deceased supporter of the school's athletics.
"At our meet alone, we attract well over 1,000 people," says track and field head coach Mark Therrien. "[Softball] had a great turnout, too, for the tournament, so there was easily 1,500 to 2,000 people on the campus that day."
The day was a success. Back at the track, the teams competed all morning and afternoon in a multitude of events, as Fonda served as the epicenter for Section II track and field for a day. At the main softball field, the day even ended with a bang -- almost literally. In the championship game of the softball tournament, the Lady Braves led the visiting Amsterdam Lady Rams by a run with two outs in the final inning when Amsterdam's Ashley Pryzyblowicz uncorked a blast to deep right field. The Lady Rams' slugger hustled around the bases, but a perfect relay from the outfield was in time to catch Pryzyblowicz at third base and give the Lady Braves the title.
More importantly, the tournament -- with the help of teams from Amsterdam, Broadalbin-Perth, Gloversville and Mayfield -- brought in close to $5,000 for the Papierniak scholarships.
"That's what Fonda's about," says Lady Braves softball head coach Kari MacDougall. "Bringing people onto our campus, bringing our community and others together."
The hope that day was to make the Papierniak tournament into an annual event, another yearly activity at F-FCSD to join alongside the long-standing Fonda Relays.
The idea that events like these could be a thing of the past is what has made this week so tough for so many in the F-FCSD community.
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Monday, the F-FCSD Board of Education voted in favor of a package of mid-year cuts that amount to $400,000. The board still needs to come up with another $100,000 of cuts to help make up for an empty undesignated fund balance, a tactic deemed necessary for the district to avert cash flow issues at the end of the school year.
In that first wave of cuts -- which the board approved in a much-discussed 5-2 vote -- spring athletics for the current academic year were wiped out, a casualty of the district's continuing budget woes. The vote to eliminate the $60,000 allocated for spring sports came after an executive session which lasted for more than two hours, a closed-doors session in which F-FCSD Interim Superintendent Patrick Michel says the main topic was athletics.
"Specifically, [we talked] about sports," he says. "We did a lot of soul-searching and had a lot of discussion."
"We all had the same idea," says Mary Frollo, one of the two board members to vote against the accepted plan. "This is a very difficult time and every one was very sad to even be discussing cutting spring sports, as well as anything else that comes up down the road. At this point, we're all just sad to be in this situation. Period."
Frollo has a daughter, Emily, in the district, a senior who plays three sports, but Frollo says her vote would have been the same regardless of her daughter.
"My heart is there for all the kids. I've said this in public session (at board meetings), that it's about them all and that's why I ran for the board in the first place. My daughter's about to graduate, but I just started on the board.
"That vote was from my heart," finishes Frollo, who is one of the board's three newest members.
While the vote was an emotional one for Frollo, it was not an easy one either for the five board members who voted in favor of the cuts to athletics, says board president Linda Wszolek.
"This was not something anyone wanted to vote 'Yes' for. ... Nobody wants to do anything that affects our students, but we're at this point where the money is not there," she says.
The problems affecting F-FCSD are not exactly new, unexpected or even particularly unique at this time. A smallish district in a rural area, the district's budget woes are similar to many other schools in the region; for example, in the past year, the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District and the Mayfield Central School District discussed -- but did not enact -- thinned budgets that did not include funding for athletics. Rather than sticking out like a sore thumb next to other schools, F-FCSD just seems to be the furthest along in experiencing the troubles so many are going through.
If F-FCSD does not offer athletics this spring, the school will seemingly be the only one in Section II to not be offering any sports.
"As far as I am aware, there are no other Section [II] schools who have eliminated an entire sports season," Section II President Paul Jenkins writes in an email. "We have many schools who have cut particular programs or program levels, such as eliminating one modified team or a freshman team or a particular sport, but have held options open for students. This would be the first district to completely eliminate sports all together."
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While Monday's news was not expected -- just a week prior, a mid-year budget committee had put forth recommendations to the F-FCSD Board of Education that left the money intact for spring athletics -- it also was not a complete surprise to those following the district's financial difficulties during the past several years, in which the school saw its state aid reduced one time after another and the district saw roughly 25 percent of its teaching staff jettisoned.
Athletics at F-FCSD fully came into the crosshairs this past budget season, when the inclusion of funding for extracurricular sports was a constant question. Eventually, partial funding for athletics was included in the adopted budget, as the district funded its normal athletic programs, with the exception of modified sports.
Since the district's budget passed without funding for the lowest level of scholastic sports, the district's athletics booster club has worked to provide the needed money for those programs. While the group has been successful -- it has raised $26,000 so far this year -- the work is not easy.
"It is tiring," says booster club president Missy Furman. "It's hard because you only have a few members that are trying to do everything."
Furman says the booster club officially has about 35 members, but that only 10 to 15 of the members are active. She says she thinks Monday's vote could help to motivate more people to get involved with the club.
"Parents aren't going down without a fight on this one, I've got to tell you," says Furman. "They're not giving up and I don't blame them."
Neither are the students. Courtney Putnam, a senior softball player, began a student petition Thursday morning and presented it to the F-FCSD Board of Education that night with roughly 360 signatures.
"We just want to let them know that this is not just a game to us," says Putnam. "This isn't just hitting a ball or running on a track. This teaches us leadership skills, how to work together, discipline, respect and we need those skills later in life and we used them right now."
Putnam says she read the news of the board's vote Monday night on Facebook. She texted and called her softball coach to see what MacDougall had heard, then retired when she could not get a hold of her.
"She was probably sleeping since it was around 10:30," says Putnam. "Then, I just sat in my room, looking at all my softball pictures and it just really hit me because it's my senior year."
F-FCSD athletic director Eric Wilson says there is still a chance the district could field teams this spring. He has spent most of this past week making phone calls, emailing and examining different options the school has to compete this spring, but those options are limited.
Merging sports programs with another school district is the most logical option for F-FCSD to take, but the impediments in the way of such a move are both tactical and emotional. Besides needing to find funds to pay for half of a merged sports program, F-FCSD would need to find another district willing to merge with them, which would mean that said district's athletes would likely lose some opportunities with F-FCSD athletes taking spots on their rosters, a move that would likely not sit well with the vanquished athletes and their tax-paying parents.
"And I completely understand that," says Wilson. "If we were on the flip side and someone wanted to merge with us, which means there's some Fonda kids getting cuts because of kids from another school, that would be an issue."
Wilson says he is still exploring several options to field teams this season, though he declined to get too specific about some of the more creative ways he looked into during this past week.
"The only thing I know for sure right now -- and what everyone knows -- is that our school is not funding spring sports," he says.
That truth means that fundraising is likely going to be necessary for F-FCSD to field teams. But with just a few months until the spring sports season is set to begin, fundraising for the district's teams -- boys and girls track and field, baseball and softball -- is not going to be easy, especially for a community that spent its past year donating a dollar here and a Lincoln there to fund the modified sports programs. Adding to F-FCSD's woes is that, while the bandied-about number is $60,000, the true cost of spring sports at F-FCSD is closer to $76,000, the cost figure that includes funding for the school's modified programs. There are ways to tinker around with that figure -- coaches' salaries could be foregone and transportation costs could be diminished with some creative thinking -- but the point remains that at least some substantial fundraising will be needed for F-FCSD's teams to take the field this spring.
Furman says the booster club's next wave of action will begin in January, giving the club just a few months to raise the funds if that is the plan of attack taken.
"We're not going to do anything until after the holidays," says Furman. "It's a lot of money to raise in a short amount of time, but we haven't ruled anything out at this time."
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The rumblings are already there about student-athletes leaving the district for next year -- and perhaps this spring.
Cassandra Egelston, a junior who plays softball, says the non-presence of spring sports is a deal-breaker for her in terms of attendance at F-FCSD.
"If they don't have them, then I'm going to have to go to another school," she says.
A catcher, Egelston wants to play college softball and says she needs to go to a school that offers the sport so that she can be able to show coaches at the next level her accomplishments at the high school level.
"[Coaches] want to see high school stats," she says. "If you don't have them, they're not going to want to take you."
While some students at F-FCSD say finding a new school for this spring or next year is something they are considering -- Amsterdam, Broadalbin-Perth, Canajoharie, Johnstown and Schalmont are schools student-athletes mentioned as possible destinations -- Egelston seems the most assertive in where she might end up if she chooses that route.
"I'd try to go to Amsterdam," Egelston says.
Other underclassmen are not willing to leave F-FCSD, though. Junior Monica Derby and sophomore Emily Parslow both say sports or no sports -- in the spring or anytime -- they will be attending school in Fonda.
"I would stay here," says Parslow. "I absolutely love the high school here and all the teachers -- though I'm not sure how many of them will still be here next year -- but I'd stay here."
For Derby, it is about finishing what she started. With just more than a year left at F-FCSD, she does not want to start over someplace new.
"I started at Fonda in kindergarten and I'd like to graduate from here," says Derby. "Leaving is not really an option for me."
That's certainly true for this year's seniors. Kevin Twardzik is one of those seniors, an athlete that opted not to play basketball this winter because he wanted to rest up after football season to get ready for a baseball season that is no longer guaranteed to him. Hearing the news that spring sports might not be a reality in 2013 was tough for Twardzik to stomach.
"It was devastating, 100 percent devastating," he says. "I'm not going to lie. Baseball is my sport. ... It's tough."
Twardzik admits there are few options for him to take if there are not spring sports this year, but he says he has underclassmen friends who are already openly talking about where to transfer. Among many of the high school students, he says, the sense is that cutting spring sports is just the tip of the iceberg; he says students fear that next year's athletics could be cut in their entirety, as it almost happened for this current academic year. With students feeling that way, the prediction is that kids could preemptively leave the district to make sure they get to participate in the extracurricular activities they enjoy.
"A lot of people aren't going to be here," Twardzik says, a thought echoed by many of those spoken to for this report.
The district's athletic director says he thinks it is unlikely too many students would leave the district if sports were cut next year, but Wilson says it is an option he worries students will take. While Wilson has a vested interest in the district keeping athletics, he also teaches multiple science classes at the high school and wants to make sure the school's academics stay as strong as possible and that the district does not lose any of its highest-achieving students.
"Some of the best students in the school are student-athletes," says Wilson. "Since 2008, 80 percent of our teams have been scholar-athlete teams; since 2010, 87 percent have been scholar-athlete teams. These are good kids that we'd be losing and that's something we don't want to do."
At the same time, F-FCSD officials say that they would not blame a student-athlete -- or any student -- for opting to look elsewhere.
"You're always concerned because you don't want to see your student body going down," says Wszolek, the board president. "But you totally understand, though. As a parent, I'm the same way -- you want the best opportunity for your child. ... That's a totally personal decision that must be reached by each person."
Making that decision for students considering such a move is made murky, though, given nobody knows yet what next year's budget will look like. While it is known that the F-FCSD budget has an expected shortfall of more than $1 million to be made up for next year, Wszolek says it is "premature" to think athletics will not be offered in the district for the 2013-14 school year, but some athletes may not wait for the picture to fully mature before making their school plans for next fall.
Egelston is one who says she does not want to sit through any indecision. If next year's situation looks like this year's -- in which athletics were mostly saved before the school funding for spring sports were then chopped, mid-year -- the junior's mind is made up.
"If they don't (know), I'm going to another school," says Egelston. "I'm not going to wait on them."
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The picture is grim. Wilson knows that, but dealing with a less-than-rosy situation is what he signed up for when he became the athletic director. Wilson only became the F-FCSD athletic director about six months ago, on the night the school's 2012-13 budget passed; if it has failed, Wilson's nomination for the role would never have been considered since there would have been no athletic department to lead.
Still, even though he knew he was not signing up for a glamour job, he did not expect what happened this past week. While he knew spring athletics could possibly get cut to make up for the mid-year budget crisis, he says he did not find out it was definitively happening until Monday night, like everyone else.
"I thought we'd be able to get through this year. Next year, we knew there was going to be so many question marks, but I'm surprised it's happening now," he says. "I'm surprised that we might not have spring sports; that we are cutting athletics isn't surprising, but what's surprising is the timing."
But while WIlson says the "feel" of these cuts have a more ominous air to them than past ones, he still believes the district has a way out. While receiving school funding for athletics is no longer an option, he seems determined to provide a pathway for the district's students to compete on the playing fields this spring, so that the seniors get their final chance to suit up as Braves and Lady Braves, and events like the Fonda Relays and the Papierniak tournament get to live on for at least one more year.
As he tells it, if there is a way for athletics to be kept for this spring, it will be found.
"Keep hope," Wilson says.