Balancing Booster Budgets

Title IX says that booster club funds cannot discriminate between males and females. In the following, four athletic directors explain how they’ve made fund-raising and gender equity go hand in hand.

By Lorraine Berry

Lorraine Berry is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 13.2, February/March 2001,

Thank goodness for the baseball booster club. Despite budget cutbacks, the baseball parents decided that this team would not suffer. They built much-needed dugouts, installed a second batting cage, and added a first-class press box to accommodate the local media. And the father of one player owns a landscaping firm, so he donated the turf laid in the outfield.

This morning, however, three softball parents show up in your office, complaining that softball appears to receive less funding than baseball. The girls’ softball team is playing on a field that does look pretty bad compared to the baseball field. But, as you explain to the parents, the school didn’t pay for any of the improvements on the baseball field—baseball parents did—and therefore, your hands are tied.

The parents don’t back down, though. Under Title IX, they claim, the athletic department is supposed to have equal facilities for boys’ and girls’ teams, regardless of who pays for it. Are they right?

Looking at the Law
In the past five years, as more Title IX cases have been argued before the courts, judges have taken a closer look at how booster clubs affect the implementation of Title IX. What the courts have ruled is that booster club moneys do count in the Title IX equation. If the booster club for the boys’ basketball team raises enough money for the players to have expensive warm-up jackets, the girls’ team is entitled to such jackets, also. And, yes, it is the school district’s responsibility to come up with that money for the girls’ team.

This does not mean that single-sport booster clubs are forbidden. But, it does mean that athletic directors need to get a little creative in how they structure their booster clubs, and how the money raised is doled out. It also means that booster clubs cannot run as entities separate from the athletic department. A school administrator must have oversight of any booster clubs.

“It’s very common that booster clubs play a role in the gender inequities that we see; specifically, the inequitable spending of money,” says Sam Schiller, founder of Schiller Law Firm in Haskell, Okla., which has represented a number of plaintiffs in Title IX cases. “But it gets difficult at the high school level when the booster clubs are primarily made up of parents of the kids playing at that time. [When parents hear they may be violating Title IX] they end up saying to an athletic director, ‘Do you mean to tell me that I can’t support my own kid in their chosen sport?’

“That is a difficult problem, but Title IX doesn’t say that they can’t support their child. It simply says that when they do, the school district has an obligation to see that the other children are supported as well.”

So what about football, which has no equivalent female sport? Schiller says that the issue remains the same, even in such a case. “I think, as parents, we wouldn’t want to go to Neiman-Marcus to buy clothes for our boys, but to K-Mart to buy clothes for our girls,” he explains. “The law does not say at all that you shouldn’t have a football booster club, it just says that if you’re going to treat some of the kids in a particular way, then the school district has an obligation to see that all kids are treated the same.

“It’s a matter of the school district gaining control of the situation,” continues Schiller. “What we’ve done in some cases is gotten a commitment from the school district saying it will oversee fund-raising efforts, whether from booster clubs or whoever, because the district has responsibility in this area.

“Once we’ve established that they have this responsibility, I think it’s a matter of education. And it requires the institution saying to these donors, ‘Look, here’s the situation. We want and appreciate your continued support of our athletics, but we have some obligations under the law. So, we would like for you to either double your effort or split them between boys and girls, otherwise, we are not going to be able to take your money.”

Is it okay to simply encourage the girls’ coaches and teams to form their own booster clubs? Schiller says that those solutions can work, but there must be an understanding about the limitations of such plans. “In these cases, there must be a commitment from the school district to provide guidance and training in fund-raising techniques for girls,” he says.

“A baseball/softball comparison is best here,” Schiller continues. “If there is a history of baseball booster fund-raising in place, the girls are at a historical disadvantage—it’s very difficult to play catch-up because the economic pie is only so big. Most businesses have a certain amount of money that they give out for charity, and it’s all earmarked. If the boys are tapped into all the available funds, when the girls come along looking for help, they are told, ‘Sorry, that money is spoken for.’”

So what are the best options for structuring today’s booster clubs? And what are the keys to establishing a working relationship with booster clubs that will benefit the athletic department as a whole, the specific programs, and most importantly, the student-athletes? In the following, four different athletic directors describe how they’ve successfully achieved both gender equity and strong booster clubs at the same time.

The Single Club Model
“I don’t think there’s room for a booster club that supports one sex’s sport over another,” says Terry Cavender, Director of Athletics for the Puyallup (Wash.) School District, which includes three high schools. “Within the school, I think our number one task is to make sure that both our male and female athletes are being treated equitably. And you can always ask the question, what is equitable? It doesn’t necessarily mean the same amount of money for each program. It means that all our programs have the same opportunities, the same experiences, and the same quality as compared to any other program.”

To achieve this, Cavender has a system whereby each high school has its own single booster club, which supports all athletics and activities programs on that campus. “They provide support in a number of ways,” he explains. “Finances are a part of it, but they also exist just to be supportive of our athletes at contests. They run concessions, sell sweatshirts, those types of things. And it’s all parent-run.

“Any program that needs money can request it,” Cavender continues. “They can go to the booster club and make an application for the project. To be honest, nobody has ever been turned down, although the dollar amount they’ve requested might be reduced. The booster club has tried to meet the needs of anybody who comes before it. And everything that they have done is on the books. In fact, at this point, there has been more money provided to girls’ sports than to boys’ teams.”

A similar system is in operation at Brainerd (Minn.) High School. Ron Stolski, who served as the high school’s athletic director for 25 years before recently giving up the post to focus on his duties as head football coach, put into place a new system when he arrived at the school. “When I came here years ago, there was a quarterback club,” Stolski says. “ It was for two boys’ sports only. This was prior to Title IX, but I could see that this wasn’t how we ought to do things. So I refused to go to the meetings.

“Some people told me, ‘This is no way to win friends,’” Stolski continues. “ I said, ‘I want to win friends, but I’m not going anywhere where the mothers of the athletes can’t go, and where female coaches can’t go.’ I told them it was foolishness. So, in effect, we burned that club down. We stopped cooperating with it, and we rebuilt an organization with the basic premise that it was to be supportive of all activities, and all-encompassing.”

Like the system in operation in Puyallup, any activity can approach the booster club for special funding. “When the coaches make a request to the boosters,” Stolski says, “the boosters ask some questions about its need, then decide whether to grant the request.”

Sport-Specific Clubs
Hunterdon (N.J.) Central Regional High School uses a different type of booster club setup. The school has one main booster club, but also allows numerous sport-specific “splinter” groups.

Hunterdon’s main booster club has just two objectives: to provide an end-of-the-year banquet for all athletes and purchase awards for teams that achieve conference, county, or state recognition. The splinter groups are part of the main club, but each focuses on one sport. Their main goals are to provide team banquets for their sports.

Several of the splinter groups—lacrosse, soccer, cross country, swimming, and basketball—involve boys’ and girls’ boosters working together. Other teams—football, softball, boys’ volleyball, and girls’ volleyball—support one team only (because boys’ and girls’ volleyball are played in separate seasons, there was little opportunity to combine efforts). Some sports have no booster group of their own.

Supervisor of Athletics Robert Rossi began restructuring Hunterdon’s booster clubs when he came to the school nine years ago. “When I started, one of the main goals the superintendent had for me was to look at inequitable situations,” he says. “For example, we had a long-standing boys’ soccer club when I got here, and the girls had nothing. So, one of my tasks was to get the girls’ soccer coach to buy into the fact that the boys had a booster club and we wanted the girls to have one, too.”

While Rossi feels the structure works well, he recognizes that he has to put constant effort into the system. “We’ve tried to maintain a sense of stability about what should be taking place, and why they are raising these moneys,” says Rossi. “For example, when a president steps down and new officers come in, it is explained to them what worked and what the duties of the club are.”

Rossi says that the system accomplishes two important things. It allows all sports to share in the main booster club’s pot of gold, and it allows parents, by also joining the splinter groups, to feel that they are working specifically for their kids.

The booster club set-up at Traverse City (Mich.) West High School also uses sport-specific clubs. They are not linked to one main group, like at Hunterdon, but the money each raises is pooled together, all of it residing in one bank account. A specific sport is allowed to hold a fund-raiser only after the team has clearly identified its goals and its budget. And if more money is raised by the project than expected, the team is not allowed to spend those dollars.

“Say your football team raises $5,000 and it needs $3,000,” says Konrad Molter, Athletic Director and Assistant Principal at the school. “That remaining $2,000 is available to anyone.”

Molter says that the system works because of the department’s philosophy that no sport is more important than another. “Coming here, I had a sit-down with someone who wanted to give me his background in the old booster system,” says Molter, who has been Athletic Director since the school opened three years ago. “But I’ve always been sensitive to the importance of each sport. Nobody told me that I was just a baseball athletic director or football athletic director. I try to give the message that all sports are as important as the others.”

To make sure that philosophy filters down to the booster activities, Molter insists that if one team comes up with a good fund-raiser, other teams share the wealth. “Two years ago, we started this fund-raiser which was a dinner-dancing night and raffle-ticket drawing,” he explains. “It’s a big money night. Our boys’ soccer team and our baseball team had wanted to host it, so I said, ‘That’s great.’ And then I saw the money that was coming in, and I decided that we needed to balance it out. So, we told softball and girls’ soccer to get involved. And now, we’ve opened it up to all the boosters.”

But Molter acknowledges that convincing everybody to buy into this philosophy is not easy. “It requires constant education about Title IX with the parents,” he says. “I bring in information about Title IX and share that. I have about three or four different meetings throughout the year on it. We have our preseason parents’ meetings in the different seasons, and we have a kickoff meeting where we really push the boosters’ responsibilities. And that is really a chance to show them what Title IX is.”

And how does Molter handle parents who want to do something specifically for their child’s team? “I have a parent who really wants to help out with the boys’ baseball field,” he says. “He wants to get new infield dirt and wants to build dugouts. I said, ‘Hey, that’s great. What are you going to do for the girls?’ We’ve gotten to the point where if we do it for one, we do it for both.”

Extra Advice
While it’s apparent that several different structures can work, all four athletic directors were consistent about one piece of advice: Stay involved with the booster clubs. “I attended every board meeting and every meeting of the boosters when I was in town,” says Stolski. “I didn’t just help form it and then leave it. I think that’s key.”

By doing this, Stolski says he was able to keep booster club members informed about the school’s mission, and point out if they were proposing anything inequitable. “Anytime it got to be a pressure group, or even started moving in certain directions, we were able to rein it in,” he says. “We could constantly remind people of our philosophy.”

He also used the meetings as opportunities to showcase the various sport programs. Each week, Stolski brought with him a coach and athlete from a different program and asked them to talk with the booster club about their successes. Therefore, when a sport approached the booster club for assistance, members were aware of the program.

Rossi adds that it’s important to assess your particular situation and school’s traditions. “Nine years ago, the superintendent gave me the charge to figure out which kind of booster system worked the best,” he says. “I talked to four different programs around the state of New Jersey to see what they did. One program had had a main club, disbanded and went to all separate clubs, and then disbanded those and went back to one central club.

“What I found out is: Do what works for you,” Rossi continues. “Our school is going on its 40th year and the main booster club is 30 years old. The splinter groups are 25 years old. It’s been a long-standing tradition that has worked well here. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t have to stay on top of it. I do, because I always have new parents coming in.”

Cavender says that the best advice he received from other athletic directors was to be explicit in his expectations. “Always set the tone with your boosters,” he advises. “You really need to explain to your boosters what the vision is for your school—both for the long and short term. Let them know that and they’ll buy in. The more education they have, the more they see that Title IX is not a hindrance.”

After the Fact
An ongoing Title IX case in Florida has indicated that even past inequities in booster club funding must be rectified if they continue to cause disparate situations. This case involves Merritt Island High School, which had used booster club funds to build a boys’ baseball facility in years past.

The boys’ facility includes such amenities as bleachers, an announcer’s booth, an electronic scoreboard, a batting cage, bathrooms, and lights. The girls’ softball field at the school lacked all of these.

The case was first heard in 1997, at which time the court granted a preliminary injunction that required the school board to equalize the situation. The school claimed that it did not have the funds to rectify the situation, and immediately began dismantling the boys’ facility to bring it in line with the girls’. The court ordered the district to stop the dismantling immediately.

In December, 2000, the court again ordered the district to comply and has given the district until March 15, 2001 to rectify the situation. Despite the district’s argument that its budget is tight, U.S. District Judge Anne Conway ruled, “Title IX is the law; it must be followed. Plaintiff correctly notes that the School Board has had decades to make the changes mandated by Title IX, yet it has not done so.”

Still the question lingers: What do you do if confronted about past inequities that cannot be easily changed? What do you do if you really do not have the funds to upgrade the girls’ softball field to the level of the boys’ baseball field?

Sam Schiller, Founder of Schiller Law Firm in Haskell, Okla., which has handled a number of Title IX suits, offers these thoughts. “First of all, it’s no defense,” Schiller says. “Under Title IX, it’s no defense that ‘We don’t have enough money.’ But I think in that situation there are a couple of options, although neither are great.

“One is you can make a joint field out of the baseball field,” Schiller continues, explaining that you can make the infield totally dirt and change the basepaths for each sport. While it would be almost impossible to change the field back and forth throughout a season, you could possibly have the teams take turns on the better field on a yearly basis.

Schiller says that the second option involves taking immediate action. “I would say, at the very least, get started,” he explains. “Get started producing something for softball. I’m certainly not saying that that’s a defense and now you’ll be okay, but at least those are good-faith efforts. It shows that the athletic director recognizes the problem. My experience with these parents has been that if athletic directors will just try, parents may be satisfied. Parents get frustrated when the athletic director just says ‘Sorry’ and does nothing.”