HAVERHILL — For the first time in years, Haverhill High students do not have to pay to play school sports.
Last year, students had to pay $100 per sport. This year, participation is free, athletic director Tom O'Brien said.
Sports fees have been in place for about 20 years at Haverhill High, O'Brien said, and were as high as $350 per sport at one point.
In the fall of 2011, the high school had 850 students participating in sports — a very low number, O'Brien said.
In the fall of 2012, fees were reduced significantly, to $100 per sport, which he said triggered an almost-immediate increase in participation. The number of students trying out for teams has steadily increased since then, he said.
"We're one of the only urban districts in the state that charged a user fee," he said. "Communities that we compete against in our league, such as Methuen, Lawrence and Lowell, did not charge a user fee and never have, as far as I know."
At a School Committee meeting this year, committee member Scott Wood proposed the elimination of sports fees. His motion to use money from renting the high school's new multi-sports field to cover the cost of the fees was approved by the committee.
"We have the revenue so it's a good idea to use it to increase participation in sports," Wood said. "When we reduced athletic fees in prior years, it resulted in more students getting involved in sports."
Last fall, with fees still set at $100 per sport, the number of students playing sports at Haverhill High jumped to 1,250, which O'Brien called an "excellent" rate of participation.
"We're seeing an increase at a time when sports across the country is experiencing a decrease," he said in reference to a recent report indicating sports participation at schools in general declined in 2018-2019 for the first time in 30 years.
"We anticipate an even (higher) number this year,'' he said. "Word is just getting out about the elimination of fees.''
"What I think we'll see now, with no fees, is students playing a second or third sport," O'Brien said. "Families found a way to pay for one sport, but not two or three. And now with no fees, I think we'll see a jump in students playing a second or third sport."
O'Brien said that when the district moved to free breakfast and lunch for all students, beginning this school year, it triggered a discussion with Superintendent Margaret Marotta regarding sports fees.
"We used to use free or reduced lunch status as a method for determining waivers for sports fees, so in our discussion, the superintendent was adamant about finding a way to eliminate (sports) user fees as well," he said.
The answer to paying for the school's sports program without charging students came from a few new sources of money.
"The bulk of the money is coming from increased rentals of our (school) pool and our new, multi-purpose turf field that opened in May and is behind the high school," O'Brien said.
O'Brien said he signed a new contract with Solo Aquatics, a local private swim club, which has been using the high school pool for about five years.
"The new contract is for five years, and that, coupled with an increase in other pool rentals, provides about a 40 percent revenue increase for us," O'Brien said. "We plan to use a big chunk of those funds to make improvements to the pool, which needs constant maintenance, and the remaining amount is going towards (offsetting) sports user fees."
Money from rentals of the multi-purpose field, which is used for soccer, field hockey, lacrosse and softball, are also helping to eliminate fees for students as well, O'Brien said.
"Families are thrilled," he said. "They've been coming in to pay their sports user fees and when they learn there are no fees, they just can't believe it. They've had to pay to play forever, so they are absolutely thrilled. The kids are thrilled, too, as many of them pay their fees through their own part-time jobs."
O'Brien said the real indicator of participation will come next spring, when students typically sign up for a second or third sport.
"You can only play one sport per season, and we have fall, winter and spring sports," he said. "As word is spreading, it's generating excitement and I'm sure we're going to see an increase in participation.
"I'm so glad to see this finally happening," O'Brien said. "If you do the math, the whole athletic department budget is less than one percent of the entire school budget. The district making a commitment to eliminate user fees is one of the biggest returns on investment and I'm glad to see it has finally happened."