Faced with an expected $3.2 million budget shortfall, Carroll County Public Schools have proposed cutting their indoor track and freshman sports programs beginning next school year.
Talk of the moves, which the county said would save it about $31,000 and $92,000, respectively, has sparked outcry from scores of athletes, coaches and parents, who have launched a coordinated effort to save the activities. As of Thursday afternoon, their online petition included more than 1,700 electronic signatures, while a Facebook group called "Save Carroll County Indoor Track & Field," had more than 1,600 members.
"It was one of the best worst options we had," Carroll County Schools Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "I'm a former teacher, a former track and field coach. I love track. It's a great sport. But we had to make some cuts. It was the least worst, I guess."
Joy Gill, president of the athletic boosters at Liberty, called cutting the programs unnecessary, considering that individual schools pick up the bulk of the costs, other than transportation, officials' fees and stipends for coaches.
"We're funding these athletic programs, buying the uniforms, buying the equipment and paying for field maintenance with money that is derived through the public through fundraising and sponsorships," Gill said. "It surprised us that the county would talk about cutting programs ... without a conversation with the community that provides the bulk of the support."
Gill, the mother of three athletes at Liberty, is working with boosters from the county's seven other public high schools to come up with alternatives, gauging support for various ideas through an online survey. Options include fundraising, using alternative transportation, seeking volunteer officials for freshman sports and increasing fees paid by athletes and admission to games.
The county's board of education is scheduled to meet about the budget proposal Wednesday night. There, dozens of athletes plan to voice their support for the programs.
"We're trying to get as many people as we can to go to the budget meeting," said Jake Baugher, a senior on the indoor track and field team at Westminster. "A lot of the athletes who run during outdoor track wouldn't be at the same level if indoor wasn't there. We just wouldn't be able to compete with Baltimore County or Harford County."
Baugher, who created the Facebook page, is helping to organize the track athletes and has led an effort to sell more than 300 T-shirts emblazoned with the words "Save Carroll County Indoor Track and Field."
Regardless of the outcome, or the outcome of a similar proposal in Frederick County, the immediate future of indoor track and field as a state-sanctioned sport would not be threatened, according to Ned Sparks, executive director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association.
"The threshold is 60 percent of our schools having the sport, and we wouldn't drop below that," Sparks said. "Obviously, we'd have to rearrange some of the regions and, who knows, maybe even consider going [from four] to three classifications. The bottom line is we'd continue to have a championship."
The bulk of the expense associated with indoor track in Carroll County is related to transportation. The county, in fact, must hold its annual championship meet - scheduled to take place Saturday - in Hagerstown because of the lack of adequate facilities nearby.
Even so, supporters contend that an $80 participation fee paid by the approximately 450 track and field athletes more than covers the costs.
"On my team, our kids pay $4,800 for the athletic fee, which is more than what we pay for transportation," Liberty coach Bobby Ward said. "Meanwhile, for a basketball team, they're going to more than twice as many games and only have 12 kids on the bus."
Jim Rodriguez, Carroll County's supervisor of athletics, said that while there might be some "creative" ways to pay for the sports, money isn't the lone factor, particularly when it comes to indoor track. He said the lack of local training facilities means athletes often are forced to run through school hallways, creating safety concerns.
The level of competition from county schools has risen markedly since the addition of indoor track in 1998. Coaches say the program helps prepare athletes for the rigors of the more popular spring track and field season.
"There's a huge benefit to having an indoor team for training," Ward said. "They say, 'Oh, you can start a club team,' but it just doesn't work the same. You can't get the kids out."
The board of education must make a preliminary decision on the proposals by the end of February, though a final decision won't come until May.
Jeff Seidel contributed to this article.