Meridian Star

December 2, 2009

Community Colleges eye athletic budgets

staff and wire

Mississippi’s community colleges will be taking a hard look at the size of their athletic budgets in the coming weeks, in light of Gov. Haley Barbour’s recommendation in November to downsize or eliminate athletic programs systemwide.

‘‘This is an area that we are going to have to address,’’ said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges. ‘‘We have to do the numbers have to see what kind of cost-savings measures are on the table.’’

Cost-saving measures are at a premium these days, with the state budget projected to be reduced by $715 million for the next fiscal year, starting July 1.

That puts community college athletic budgets, which Barbour said ate up $20 million in 2007, squarely in the line of fire.

‘‘Intercollegiate athletics is an expensive endeavor,’’ Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said.

Neither Clark nor Turner could say how much money community college athletic programs generate to offset this cost.

‘‘We have not done any analysis on that yet,’’ Clark said.

Meridian Community College President Scott Elliott said Wednesday that Gov. Barbour and the Legislature have a formidable job in balancing the FY11 budget. 

“I'm not really surprised that Gov. Barbour cited intercollegiate athletics as part of his budget recommendations. It's true that community colleges invest considerable funds in our sports programs, which, to be honest, are essentially non-revenue producing. Nonetheless, I would not be in favor of eliminating athletic programs because I believe they positively contribute to the overall college environment, helping to build school spirit and a sense of identity, unity," Elliott said. "Also, athletics provide numerous students an opportunity to showcase their God-given talents while pursuing higher education. If not for athletics, some of those students would never have the opportunity nor inclination to benefit from a college education.

"Strictly from a business standpoint, if you eliminated athletics, it would impact a number of college components, for instance occupancy in residence halls, meal plan participants, and textbook sales. For colleges with football teams, the elimination of that sport would probably also end marching band programs as we know them and maybe cheerleading. A lot of things are interconnected, and a domino effect would undoubtedly result from the elimination of sports programs."

East Central Community College President Phil Sutphin said Wednesday that it's too early to react to the proposals being laid out.

"Right now what we are most concerned about is the 5 percent budget cut that we got already for this year, and then looking at the possible budget cuts to come this year. We were able to survive the first 5 percent budget cut because of earlier things that we had done. We'll have to see what the size of the next budget cut is to determine what we have to do to deal with that," Sutphin said. "Athletics is a big issue on the high school level, university level and also the community college level. At this point, barring any unforseen circumstances, I would suspect that we would continue to have athletics at the community college level."

Barbour’s recommendation comes at a time when Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College are expanding their athletic facilities. PRCC is currently building a $1.175 million field house, located south of Dobie Holden Stadium on its Poplarville campus, that is scheduled to be completed by early 2010.

JCJC recently received a $250,000 check from Community Bank to help build a baseball and softball complex, scheduled to be completed by summer 2010.

PRCC President William Lewis said he believes that cutting sports programs, which range from football and basketball to soccer and golf, should be a last resort.

‘‘Athletics have been part of the culture of Mississippi community colleges going back to the 1920s,’’ he said.

Lewis said that community colleges should look at becoming more efficient with their athletic programs. Options include limiting the size of travel squads, reducing coaching staffs or opting for opponents that require less travel, he said.

By far the biggest cost though is athletic scholarships, Lewis said. PRCC has more than 150 athletes on full or half scholarship.

Given the economic climate, that kind of spending may not be viable anymore, Turner said.

‘‘The university and community college system’s first order of business is education,’’ he said. ‘‘It is fun to play football and basketball, but few people make a living at it.’’

Lewis said athletic programs provide academic opportunities above and beyond athletes who are not ready or skilled enough for Division I programs. They’ve also given a reason for existence of other scholarships programs such as the marching band, dance and cheer team and cheerleading, he said.

‘‘When you eliminate those programs, you eliminate opportunities for young people,’’ Lewis said.