SOUTHINGTON — It’s been 18 months since Southington’s Board of Education made the decision to cut sports funding for the town’s two middle schools.
Yet, one would never know it today.
DePaolo and Kennedy middle schools continue to field soccer, cross country, volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball teams. For the past year-plus, the schools have competed against middle school teams from Meriden, Cheshire and Wallingford.
Unlike the teams they compete against, the DePaolo and Kennedy squads aren’t funded by the school district. Instead, players aged 12-14 in Southington can thank the efforts of a group of parents who formed the Southington Middle School Athletic Association (SMSAA).
“The ultimate goal was to continue middle school sports as an avenue for kids to have something to do after school,” SMSAA president David Marek said. “The good thing is, whether you play on a team or not, it involves other students as well.
“Anytime you go to a game, you always have the support of the students, the student body coming out to support the team,” Marek added. “The ultimate goal is to sustain middle school sports.”
Founded in 2017, the SMSAA has continued to raise funds for both schools’ teams through fundraising and donations by several town businesses. As a result, neither DePaolo’s nor Kennedy’s sports programs have missed a beat.
One of the SMSAA’s major fundraising events is its 2nd Annual Hoop It Up event next Friday, Dec. 14 at the Derynoski Elementary School gym. Dubbed “The Battle of the Schools,” all four of the DePaolo and Kennedy basketball teams will play a scrimmage.
The event features music, games, food, raffles and contests for all ages. It attracted nearly 1,000 friends, family and students a year ago and generated nearly $4,000 in contributions. Considering the SMSAA must raise about $40,000-60,000 annually to keep middle school sports alive, Hoop It Up goes a long way toward reaching that goal.
“It’s just a great event for the family and kids,” Marek said. “For a lot of these kids, (middle school) is the only chance that they’ll have to wear their school colors.
“I understand that some people are going to push back and say there are travel programs,” Marek added. “But the experience these kids get to wear their school colors, run through a banner, meeting for breakfast as a team before school. I still remember the camaraderie that comes from being on a school team.
Marek played several sports in the 1990s at Kennedy and then at Southington High School.
“Wearing that jersey the day of a game, it was just so exciting,” he said. “It not just playing a sport, it’s an experience.”
At DePaolo and Kennedy, funding for that experience was nearly taken away in June of 2017 when school district leaders cut more than $1 million in programs, salaries and supplies. Among the cuts was $120,000 appropriated for sports at DePaolo and Kennedy.
The state’s lack of financial help forced Board of Education Chairman Brian Goralski and his fellow committee members to leave 14 teaching positions vacant during the 2017-18 school year, reduce “over a quarter-million dollars” of textbooks and eliminate a foreign language pilot program.
“It was part of a very complicated budget season and Southington was hit very hard,” Goralski said. “But at the end of the day, we are the Board of Education. It wasn’t a popular decision and one the public was most vocal about.
“I would love to never cut anything,” Goralski added. “I would love to create more opportunities than less, (but) my colleagues and I were faced with reducing staff or reducing this. This was the option we chose to mitigate reduction of staff. I still stand by my decision.”
“I was shocked and in disbelief,” said Marek, who was among the most vocal parents who spoke at Board of Education meetings in 2017. “I understand that the Board of Ed has to set a budget and it’s very sensitive, especially in today’s day and age. But the amount of money that is needed to fund a middle school sports program is a drop in the bucket considering what the town’s budget is.
“In a perfect world, I just wish the town would meet us halfway. In a town like Southington, we shouldn’t be having a conversation like this. We shouldn’t be trying to save middle school sports.”
When the cuts became official, the SMSAA was formed. At the “core” of the SMSAA were Mike DeFeo, Alisa Delmonte, Chris Shanley-Buck, Ann Morgan, Kim Carr, Casie Messina and Mike Taylor. Most had kids in middle school, so each had skin in the game, so to speak.
Still, their efforts didn’t go unnoticed by Goralski or the schools.
“A lot of parents stepped forward to pick up the slack of our reduction,” Goralski said. “Myself, my collegues, and especially the students, are grateful for that.”
The absence of funding for middle school sports remains a hot topic in Southington. The SMSAA is in its second year of keeping middle school sports alive.
“It shows you how important middle school sports are in Southington,” Board of Education committee member Zaya Oshana said. “A year-plus into this, (middle school sports) are still vibrant, still fully functional. It’s run through the school system, of course, but it’s a parent-driven program. I find that so amazingly impressive.
“Core education will always come first,” Oshana continued. “But middle school sports, music, arts — all that stuff — has such a huge impact on growth and development of the kids.”
The SMSAA lost a few members as their kids moved on to high school. Others have remained vigilant, staying on the committee despite their sons or daughters departure from middle school. Still, the SMSAA is a “revolving door” of parents, says Marek, who took over as the SMSAA president this year.
And while the SMSAA urges all middle school parents to get involved, adding new faces remains a challenge. As Marek points out, the committee needs parents of incoming middle school kids to join the SMSAA team.
Matt Lefkowitz, who coaches soccer, basketball and baseball at Kennedy, was a student at DePaolo when the middle school football program was removed in the ’90s. A coach at Kennedy for the past 19 years, Lefkowitz said the decision in 2017 to cut funding for middle school sports was “devastating.”
“There is so much more to it than the actual playing of the games,” Lefkowitz said. “These kids are practicing after school at a time when they are most vulnerable.
“It’s just ridiculous if they think that town sports are going to do the same for these kids preparing them for high school.”
In addition to SMSAA efforts in the face of the funding cuts, students are required to pay to play middle school sports — $150 per sport an athlete plays.
But considering the cost per player is approximately $300, fundraising and donations by town businesses have kept middle school sports alive in Southington.
Like Southington, the town of Bristol removed middle school sports a few years ago. But Bristol reversed field and reinstated its middle school programs. Can the same thing occur down the road in Southington?
“I’m hopeful that can happen, but perception isn’t always reality,” Marek said. “People you talk to think it’s crazy that Southington doesn’t fund middle school sports.
“From a parental standpoint, the direction we want to send our kids is to be involved in something,” Marek added. “Whether that is sports, an instrument, or art club, just be active in something that stimulates their minds, bodies and keeps them active.”
According to its website, the SMSAA has an EIN number and has filed for 501c3 status as a charitable foundation with the IRS. For more information on the SMSAA, visit their Facebook page “Save our Southington Middle School Sports.”