In a tough economy, schools face tough choices — many are charging pay-to-play fees and/or cutting athletic programs.

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It had been one of the best deals in town.

For nothing more than a student body card, public schools offered sports as a free service, one so ingrained in everyday family life that even a decade ago, few would fathom it coming at a price.

“At Juanita in those days, kids would have just laughed at us,” says Tim Crowder, the athletic director at Juanita High School in Kirkland.

But the budget realities of recent years have forced school districts to reconsider one of public education’s most standard practices. Participation fees, known as pay-to-play, have gone from unthinkable to commonplace. And particularly in this year’s anemic economy, districts that chose not to charge fees, or raise them, have had to make other budget lacerations, often to programs they might never recover.

“They all impact kids; that’s the difficulty,” said Brad Stolz, Lake Washington School District athletic director. “It’s not as simple as saying we’re going to cut a product out. It makes it an emotional decision and a heartfelt decision. It does pull at you.”

Twelve districts in King and Snohomish counties, including the large Kent, Snohomish and Northshore districts, eliminated teams at either the middle-school, freshman, sophomore or junior-varsity level.

“We’re operating on a much smaller margin than ever,” said Kent athletic director Dave Lutes.

After several community meetings, the Lake Washington School District adamantly made it a priority not to cut athletic programs. So the district took pay-to-play a step further this school year, raising its participation fee at the high-school level from $100 to a King County-high $275 per sport, per child. (As with most districts, there is a cap per child and per family, and waivers are available to students on free and reduced programs). The district expects the increase to save $600,000, money it did not have to cut from programs.

“Certainly we’re concerned how it’s going to affect participation,” Stolz said. “It’s a double-edged sword, knowing we want more kids to participate. On the other hand, with budget cuts we’ve got to do something to sustain the programs.”

The increased fee has led Lake Washington’s schools to get creative. At Redmond and Juanita high schools, coaches have turned to boosters to help pay the fee for students whose families cannot afford it.

In other words, public high-school students are going on scholarship this fall.

“It did feel weird at first, just trying to ask people about it,” said Redmond football coach Mike Pluschke.

Yet using booster money for participation fees comes at a cost, mostly to the technology and equipment upgrades that boosters usually finance. And even the words themselves — pay-to-play — have coaches concerned about how the fees will affect parents’ expectations of playing time.

“For us, it’s tough because when it comes to varsity, we can’t sacrifice the team for someone to get playing time,” Juanita football coach Shaun Tarantola said. “There is a new pressure on coaches that we haven’t experienced yet, but I’m pretty sure we will at some point.”

And then there’s the cost to large families, which could be as high as $1,310 annually in the Lake Washington district. John Laufasa, a parent of three multisport athletes between eighth and 11th grades in Lake Washington schools, would face $865 in fees this year — and $1,210 next year — if his children kept playing two or three sports. So, he said, they will likely only play one each this school year.

“It’s a killer,” Laufasa said. “I hope it goes back down. But if they eliminated sports, I’d move.”

The weight that participation fees put on families is one of several reasons the Kent School District steadfastly refused to implement pay-to-play, even when the district faced the prospect of a $1.2 million cut to its athletic programs last spring. The amount the district eventually trimmed was significantly less — $118,000 by eliminating its sophomore teams.

“Every district that has instituted pay for play, if they track their [participation] numbers, they don’t go up,” said Lutes, Kent’s athletic director. “The whole connection to the school that we feel is so important, you start losing that.”

The Tukwila School District, as well as several schools already facing dwindling athletic numbers, did not consider a participation fee a realistic possibility. Instead, the district eliminated its C teams and some coaching positions. Renton, which also does not have pay-to-play, saved almost $300,000 by eliminating its C teams and cutting the position of athletic director in its high schools.

Athletic directors in Seattle and Federal Way said their districts had already been pared down to such a bare-bones level that further cuts in programs were not necessary this school year. Both districts already charge participation fees — $50 in Seattle and $120 in Federal Way. Those fees did not increase this school year.

Outside of the Everett district, which introduced a $75 fee, and Shoreline, which raised its fee from $60 to $100, every district in Snohomish County has cut teams. In the Snohomish School District, booster money helped save the proposed elimination of seventh-grade football, softball and basketball.

As with the cuts that any business has made in a down economy, there’s concern about whether districts will ever recover eliminated programs.

“If you’re going to talk about reducing, you’re also going to have to talk about your strategy about how you’re going to recreate and reimplement,” said Mike Colbrese, executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association.

Recovery was one of the main concerns for the Northshore School District last spring, when it initially planned to cut all junior-high sports before settling on eliminating softball and baseball. But Chris Bigelow, the district’s director of student services, said that in community meetings, the district’s residents did not list athletics in the top half of their priorities.

“Let’s be real: the state pays us to teach kids,” Bigelow said. “But you talk about cutting sports, and the community has a lot invested.”

And as the days of free public-school sports wane, that investment grows. And there’s no guarantee, as educators and athletic directors alike anxiously await the next budget cycle, that the investment will not grow again.

“The worst may have passed, but it isn’t over,” Colbrese said. “There is still some concern about what might happen with funding for education.”

Tom Wyrwich: 206-515-5653 or; staff reporter Sandy Ringer and freelancer Joshua Mayers contributed to this report.