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Sports spending?

You don't need to know, legislators argue.

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Some things, as preachers and John Ashcroft like to say, you just aren't meant to know. In Arkansas, apparently, that kind of thinking applies not only to the mysteries of God and national security, but also to that other sacred institution, high school athletics. Last year the Times told the story of Clinton veterinarian and school board member Ben Mays' lonely quest to force school districts to accurately report how much public money they spend on sports. He'd met with stiff resistance - even his own fellow school board members voted not to allow a private auditing company to study Clinton's sports spending, despite Mays' offer to pick up the tab. Wednesday, members of the House Education Committee voted out a bill by Rep. Betty Pickett, D-Conway, that would require school districts to keep a much stricter accounting of what they spend on sports. But the approval came only after Pickett gutted key provisions of the bill to mollify critics. In its original form, the bill would have capped the amount of state money - not local funds or private donations - that school districts could spend on sports. It would have required districts to keep a detailed account of all athletic spending, including coaches' salaries, field upkeep, gym utilities and transportation; report how much state money, local tax revenue, private donations and other money is spent on sports; and post the information on the school district's web site. The initial response? Indignant protests from legislators who insisted that many athletic programs pay for themselves through gate receipts (a laughable assertion - not even the University of Arkansas manages that), and argued that sports should not be singled out from other extracurricular activities. Current accounting isn't useful. Many school districts, Mays said, don't come close to reporting how much they actually spend on sports because they only report things like equipment that can't possibly fit into any other category. Coaches' salaries, for instance, get lumped in with teacher pay, and transportation costs aren't reported separately from other busing expenses. Pickett's bill sets out specific expenses school districts would have to tally and report each year to the Board of Education. They would have to prorate the salaries and benefits of employees who teach and coach; figure out how much of their utility bills come from heating, cooling and lighting gyms and fields; report athletic transportation, insurance, janitorial costs and field maintenance separately; and show how much of those expenses are paid for with state money, local revenue, gate receipts and, originally, fund-raisers and donations. Pickett watered down the bill several times to placate critics, notably Dwight Fite of Benton, a former high school athletic director; Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood, and Steven Thomason, D-Hope. She removed the spending cap altogether, broadened the accounting requirement to all interscholastic activities and took out provisions that schools report the source of all private donations and post sports spending on their websites. Still, the bill lost a vote in the House Education Committee Monday: nine members voted for the bill and only four against, but a bill needs 11 votes - a majority of the 20 members - to pass. Seven committee members, including Fite, Rep. Robert White and House Speaker Herschel Cleveland, were absent though the special session doesn't have a heavy load of competing committee meetings for legislators to attend. Wednesday's do-pass recommendation came after Pickett made one last stab to mute opposition by deleting the requirement to report even the amount of private contributions to sports programs. Even the state's college athletic programs are required to disclose that, though not individual contributors. It now goes to the full House. Mays said he's happy to get anything passed, but that removing private-donation accounting could be fatal to the bill's original intent. It would mean, Mays said, that school officials could still get away with claiming that private donations cover much of their sports expenses. "It's pretty ridiculous," Mays said Tuesday. "If nothing else, this has demonstrated that the powers that be in the education hierarchy don't want the public to know how much tax money is being diverted to optional sports programs." Why not? Legislators who have opposed the bill insist they're not against the concept of tracking sports expenditures. "I would support it, if it just doesn't pick on one particular aspect," said Fite, who said he missed Monday's meeting because he was working on a new school district restructuring proposal. "I'm for all transparent accounting. But when you start singling out any one aspect, that's like saying it's not a good thing, and it is a good thing." Wood and Thomason found fault with disclosing private contributions. "If they're out there having a car wash I don't see why they should have to report that," Wood said. He said his fear is that the Department of Education might punish schools that are able to raise a lot of private money by reducing the amount of public money they receive for sports. Nobody has made any showing that there is a significant amount of private contributions to high school sports in Arkansas, however, particularly as a percentage of tax spending. Wood was one of the four Education Committee members who voted against Pickett's amended bill Monday. He changed his vote Wednesday. Fite argued in an education committee meeting last week that when he was athletic director in Benton, the football program paid for itself with gate receipts. The Benton-Bryant game alone, he said, could raise as much as $24,000. Later, however, Fite said his calculations didn't include coaches' salaries, which account for the bulk of spending. Mays believes a true accounting of athletic spending would show the state's schools actually spend 10 times the approximately $21 million they report to the Department of Education each year. That's a figure local school officials don't want to see the light of day, he said. "I think there are a lot of people that just have this terrific emotional attachment to sports programs," he said. "They probably have this notion" that they're spending too much on athletics, but are afraid if the public found out the actual amount, "some funds will be reallocated to what they were allocated for in the first place - to teach kids how to read, write and do math." Mays acknowledges his estimate is a guess. He adds, "If schools and the Department of Education were doing what they ought to be doing, it shouldn't be necessary for someone to make a guess."

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