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Stoneham cuts all sports at high school

And it isn't 'just' sports. All elementary and middle school arts and music programs were also eliminated. But there is no news of boosterism to reinstate these programs.

Town residents should contact their state senator Ted Kennedy and ask him about leaving children behind.

By Eric Moskowitz

STONEHAM -- In a year in which one property tax override rejection follows another and cuts to public services have become the norm, this town may have set a new standard this week.

Voters here defeated a $3 million override Tuesday, spurring a round of budget cuts that will wipe out the town's entire high school sports program and leave hundreds of student athletes in the lurch. All 54 coaching positions, the athletic director's job, and elementary and middle school arts and music programs were eliminated Wednesday night by the Stoneham School Committee.

The cuts, among the most draconian in the region this year, stunned parents, who talked openly yesterday of sending their children to private schools so they can play in sports. Students, just beginning their summer vacation, worried about their plans for fall sports and beyond.

"I think a part of me would be gone. You know what I mean?" said Dustin Feldman, 17, a basketball player who will be a senior in the fall. "If you get rid of all sports, what's going to happen to all this," he said, motioning to the athletic complex outside Stoneham High School, where Feldman and 10 friends played pick-up baseball yesterday.

Stoneham selectmen will meet Tuesday night to consider continuing an unpopular trash fee, which could raise about $1 million and avoid a portion of the cuts that were recommended by the School Committee.

Stoneham has already endured a series of town and school cuts in recent years, as health insurance, utilities, special education bills and other mandated costs have risen faster than the tax increases allowed under the Proposition 2 1/2 limit. In each of the last two years, the Board of Selectmen imposed a $160-per-household trash collection fee to raise revenue. But the trash fee proved unpopular, and officials pledged to eliminate it if voters passed the $3 million override.

That override failed Tuesday by 237 votes. Statewide, an estimated 33 communities have rejected overrides in the spring.

The Stoneham school sports cut is believed to be the second time a school board has scrapped its high school athletics program after an override failed, said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association. Winthrop made the same move in 2004, but boosters restored the program through donations, user fees, and gate receipts.

Stoneham's longtime athletic, physical education, and health director Michael Lahiff accepted a job last month at Watertown High School, a Middlesex League rival. Coaches, boosters, and friends gathered at a party for Lahiff yesterday, but the send-off was bittersweet.

"Stoneham has been a special place to me," Lahiff said. "Both the kids and the staff I've worked with over the years have just been fantastic, and it's something that I'm really going to miss,"

But "given the whole tenor right now of not knowing where athletics would be," Lahiff said, he accepted the Watertown position. "I just had to do what I felt was right for my family," he said.

In addition to sports, music, and arts cuts, the School Committee plans to shut down the sixth-grade wing of the middle school and send those students back to elementary school to save money.

"This is beyond inadequate," said Superintendent Joseph J. Connelly, who retired yesterday after nine years with the district and 40 in public education.

Without the override, school officials were told to hold to a $22.9 million budget for another year, but that translates to a loss in services, given steady increases in costs, Connelly said. To make up the difference, the School Committee voted to make 13 separate cuts.

If the town votes for a trash fee, or finds other money, the cuts would be restored according to priorities set by the School Committee; sports is eighth on the list. The first restoration priority would be to reverse the plan to shut down the sixth-grade wing of the middle school. Elementary and middle school fine arts classes and a high school assistant principal, among other cuts, would also be restored before sports. The Stoneham sports program represented about $600,000 of the school system's budget.

School Committee member Marie Christie, who made the motion to approve the list of 13 cuts, said the motion was the most devastating she has had to make in 25 years on the board. "We've already gone through the bones. We're down to the dust," she said.

Override opponents say high taxes are forcing many homeowners, especially seniors, out of this middle-class community of about 22,000. Some leading override opponents want to see the town manage its affairs more like a business, by consolidating some school and town administrative positions and outsourcing operations such as cafeteria service and custodial work.

Override supporters point out that Stoneham already operates on a relative shoestring -- teachers here were paid an average of about $47,000 last year, about $10,000 less than the state average -- but is hamstrung by its lack of commercial property. About one-third of the land in town is untaxable state parkland.

The parents of Joe Russell, a three-sport athlete, said they may send him to private school if they can afford it.

"Sports are such a big part of these kids' lives; it's the reason some kids do well in school," said Russell's mother, Janet. "We've got two applications for private schools that we're looking at. It's not what we want to do, but with four children who have played a lot of sports, we'll have to look at it."

At the high school fields, Feldman and his friends talked about getting a petition together to restore sports.

Tim Lee, a 6-foot-2, 255-pound lineman, said he was hoping to attract the attention of Division I-AA coaches this season. Now he might not have a season.

"I plan on going to the next level," he said. "Not to have high school football for my senior year is, like --"

Before he could think of a word, friend Mike O'Neil jumped in. "Devastating," he said.

Globe correspondent Sapna Pathak contributed to this report.

— Eric Moskowitz
Boston Globe




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