Athletes sidelined as bills go unpaid

Foul-up: Officials blame a "staffing shortage" as contractors don't get paid and a lack of buses postpones dozens of games.

Crisis In Baltimore Schools

February 12, 2004|By Katherine Dunn and Lem Satterfield | Katherine Dunn and Lem Satterfield,SUN STAFF

Every day after school, Jermaine Bolden can't wait to get a basketball in his hands. Game days are the best for the senior and his Douglass teammates - at least when the bus comes.

"The third time the bus didn't show up, we sat around and everybody just looked at each other for a couple hours," said Bolden. "Then we wanted to quit. It was like nobody cared about us anymore."

Bolden and his teammates aren't the only ones left feeling that way.

In Baltimore this winter season, 64 high school basketball games as well as some wrestling matches and swim meets have been postponed because there weren't enough buses designated to transport athletes. The basketball postponements occurred from Jan. 15 to Jan. 30, but the problem continues for other sports.

The bus shortfall, due partly to the district's failure to pay contractors, is just one of the difficulties hampering the city schools' athletics department. Over the past three months, basketball referees and some coaches have been paid late or not at all.

The district's school transportation office has been in disarray for months, as the office and one of its bus contractors are being investigated by the state prosecutor's office over alleged improprieties.

Officials from several bus companies told The Sun that late payments have caused them to stop making trips for sports. There have been many delays as a result.

On Tuesday, Poly's wrestling team waited 90 minutes for a bus to its match at Overlea. Last week's city swimming championships were delayed 45 minutes to wait for several teams that did not get buses. At least one track team had to catch an MTA bus to a meet at the 5th Regiment Armory.

`A chaotic situation'

"It's been a day-to-day situation," said Bob Wade, the coordinator of athletics for the city schools. "We don't know how many buses we're going to have available for athletics on a daily basis."

The reassignment of one of Wade's assistants appears to be at the heart of late payments to basketball referees and emergency coaches, the term for those not on staff.

As of yesterday, referees had not been paid since December, said Wayne Randall, who assigns officials to city boys and girls games. A number of emergency coaches said they had received their last pay as much as three weeks late.

Randall and many of the city's athletic directors said the payment problems for officials and coaches stems from the reassignment Jan. 5 of Ruth Jackson, an assistant in Wade's office for 23 years. Wade declined to comment about Jackson's role.

School system spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said the delay in payments to bus companies, officials and some coaches results from a "staffing shortage."

She said more than 700 positions had been eliminated as of Jan. 5 to help alleviate the city schools' $58 million deficit. As a result, Jackson is now working as a secretary in the National Academy Foundation at Lake Clifton.

"We've been in a chaotic situation since we lost [Jackson]," said Poly athletic director Mark Schlenoff. "All the supervisors through the years turned that office over to her and let her work her magic. Then, they pulled her out and did not replace her and said that office can function. Now, emergency coaches are ready to walk out and officials are ready to quit."

Several athletic directors said the city schools' $58 million deficit is not the cause of the athletics department's plight. "The money is there; it's just the process," said Mervo athletic director Woody Williams.

The city athletic department has a $3.29 million budget allocated in July for the 2003-2004 school year, said Pyatt. That funding is set aside to cover expenses such as transportation, coaching salaries and referees' fees for all sports from September to May. That amount is up from last year's $2.9 million, she said.

Pyatt said yesterday that the district has paid all but one of the nine bus companies contracted for athletics.

Sandra Carpenter, director of public relations for Durham School Services in Austin, Texas, said her company did not get paid for November sports trips until Tuesday, a week after The Sun began making inquiries.

Durham, which has 61 vehicles and 68 drivers in Baltimore City, stopped athletic runs as of Jan. 1 due "to the district's financial situation and payment history," Carpenter said.

Prospects for making it through the spring athletics season appear poor as Durham is among several companies that have stopped sports runs because of late payments. There were similar problems last spring, a season that involves eight sports, up from five in the winter.

"It has never ever been this bad," said Obie Barnes, Forest Park athletic director for 13 years and the Foresters' football coach for 34 years. "The biggest detriment in this whole situation with the buses and the money is the quality of our program. I think we're going to survive, but the quality of our program will not be as good."

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