Sports fees return for Salem middle, high schoolers

Salem student athletes will once again have to pay to play sports at school as a three-year athletic fee hiatus ends in the fall — but district leaders and nonprofit groups say fees shouldn’t pose a barrier for any student who can’t afford them.

The Salem-Keizer School District is reinstating fees for middle and high school athletics after covering the cost of sports programs through grant funding since 2020.

High school students will pay $125 for the first sport in a school year, $75 for a second and nothing for a third. Low-income students would pay $50 per sport for the first two.

Middle schoolers would pay $40 per sport for the first and second sports in a school year, and nothing after. Low-income students would pay $20 per sport for the first two.

The change will affect over 8,000 student athletes at district middle and high schools.

Athletic fees were refunded to families in the spring of 2020 when schools shut down for Covid.

During the next three school years, district leaders used state grant money from the Student Investment Account to cover the cost of sports programs for families.

“Because we had that ability, we took advantage of it,” said Lara Tiffin, the district’s coordinator of athletics and activities.

Local schools offered fewer sports programs during the 2020-21 school year when classes were held mostly online, and waiving fees cost the district about $390,000.

Those expenses climbed as more sports returned to normal. In 2021-22, Salem-Keizer spent $981,000 on waiving athletic fees, and last year the cost was $2.1 million.

Tiffin said the district needs to resume charging fees to make the sports programs viable as other sources of money, like federal Covid relief, are set to expire soon.

“Just like everything else in the world, the costs are increasing drastically,” she said, particularly for transportation.

Fees for the upcoming school year are still lower than those charged in 2019, when families paid $175 per sport.

In addition to reduced fees, student athletes can get help from the nonprofit Salem-Keizer High School Sports Booster Club, which puts on the annual Beacons awards honoring outstanding local athletes.

The nonprofit shifted its focus in 2018 toward covering participation fees for student athletes, president Bryan Sutherland said, giving $5,000 toward each of the district’s six high schools.

Many high schools have their own booster clubs that raise money for things like equipment and facilities upgrades, but Sutherland said their group saw a need to make sure finances weren’t a barrier for any student.

“It doesn’t matter, frankly, if you have a new scoreboard if you don’t have kids participating,” he said.

In recent years, the nonprofit expanded to cover costs like physicals and equipment that might prevent students from participating, but with fees coming back Sutherland said they’re expecting most money raised to go toward fee costs.

Following this year’s Beacon awards, the booster club gave $2,000 to each high school athletic director.

Students at any school struggling to pay fees or other sports costs can reach out to their coach or athletic director.

Sutherland said the nonprofit is motivated because its members believe in the power of high school sports to teach life lessons in a lower-stakes environment.

“I get to learn failure in a softball game when it’s not like I lost a job. I can learn how to work my way through failure, I can learn how to deal with teammates and how to collaborate on things and how to pursue a goal and how to behave as a human being,” he said.

Coaches also keep kids engaged in school and motivate them to attend class, he said.

The booster club plans to raise additional money if needed to cover the cost of athletic fees for students.

Tiffin said high school sports participation now is where it was pre-pandemic.

“Students are very interested in being active and engaged in their schools,” she said. “There’s something about when it gets taken away from us, I think: it helps us not take things for granted.”

She said she’ll monitor participation closely in the fall after fees return. She’s hopeful with help available that the change won’t deter students from playing.

“If there is a steep decline, I think we will need to address that,” she said.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.