Levy failure leaves Centralia school sports in jeopardy

By Jared Wenzelburger

The Chronicle

The future of Centralia sports is up in the air as the school district’s board members and staff discuss significant cuts — including all of the district’s sports programs — to combat a nearly $12 million projected deficit for the 2020-21 school year.

It’s left the district’s coaches reeling and searching for alternatives in case the worst case scenario happens.

Varsity softball coach David Orr, who’s been coaching for the Centralia School District since 2007, has met with his assistants and most of the other head coaches in the district, most of whom are alumni, to figure out a plan B.

All of the current coaches have agreed to work without pay to help offset the costs, Orr said. They have also talked about helping other programs out to cut costs, such as having the softball coaches run the football scoreboard, or the football players working a table at wrestling tourneys.

“We’ll be on the field, regardless of pay,” Orr said. “If I have to coach every sport to make it work then that’s what we’ll do. Whatever we need to do to pull together and make sure our kids have the same opportunities as other schools. There are enough people in the athletic community that we’ll support each other.”

The proposed cuts come after a levy request in February that failed with 69 percent of residents voting no. Athletics are 100 percent funded by levies.

The future of Centralia sports could all come down to a second try at the levy, scheduled for Aug. 4, a $5.3 million renewal of the school district’s expiring EP&O levy costing residents $2 per $1,000 in assessed property value. Another failure could mean the end of high school sports, for the time being, in the Hub City.

“This is still a topic that we as a district continue to struggle with because we understand the importance of athletics to our community and to our students. However, if we don’t have levy funding, we, unfortunately, don’t have a funding source for that program,” said Tabitha Whiting, the district’s executive director of human resources. “So as of right now, there is no definitive plan to have athletics next year in Centralia.”

The coaches’ plans to work for free would just be a temporary solution, Orr said, not a sustainable one, even if it did work. They would still have to figure out the costs of travel and paying referees, as well.

However, the main focus right now, Orr said, is educating the community and making sure the upcoming levy passes. It’s a maintenance levy, an extension of the existing one, not an additional one, he said.

Orr has been able to see both sides of the spectrum, as a coach and a parent. He has two daughters who are currently sophomores at Centralia High School and both play on the fastpitch team.

“It kind of puts it into reality seeing their reactions and how it has affected them missing this season,” Orr said. “It’s scary. I do think about what if there are no sports? What am I going to do with my daughters? They’re both honor roll students but they definitely go to school and enjoy the sports. That’s part of what keeps them working hard in the classroom is their desire to play sports.”

Athletics is just a small piece of what is funded through the levy. Co-curricular activities such as band, the construction class, the robotics program, clubs, the Future Farmers of America (FFA) and others are also funded through levies.

Other contributing factors have been the impacts of COVID-19, such as statewide budget pressure and decreased student enrollment. The school board voted on May 5 to approve a reduced education program resolution, which laid off 90 district employees.

The district is still in the process of building the 2020-21 budget and the planning process will include discussion about what can be brought back if the levy passes in August, said Ed Petersen, Centralia School District’s communications officer.

“The district, with the help of some very supportive athletic staff, is exploring if there are any ways we might be able to offer an alternate or reduced athletics program next year for varsity athletes. Nothing has yet been decided in that regard,” Petersen said.

If sports does end up on the chopping block, Orr could see it having a rippling effect that reaches well beyond the school district.

“I feel like if there are no athletics in Centralia, which is hard to believe, I can’t imagine that wouldn’t affect property prices and people would be losing equity,” Orr said. “I don’t think young families would want to start buying houses in Centralia when the school district doesn’t offer any extracurricular programs.”

Orr has heard talk of some parents discussing whether or not to transfer their kids to another school district in fear of sports being cut out in Centralia. The community needs to band together now more than ever, he said.

“We need to get the support of our community back and make people realize that if we cut funding to our schools, it’s going to be a bigger effect than just the kids at that school,” Orr said. “It’s going to affect the whole community. “