First day of football practice (copy)

Players warm up during the first official day of football practice at Northern Guilford on Aug. 1. Students must pay a $45 fee each year or receive a waiver from Guilford County Schools to participate in athletics competition.

GREENSBORO — Guilford County Schools athletics teams are less than three weeks away from their first competition of the fall season, but a system-wide change in who is eligible for a waiver from the athletics participation fee could leave students, coaches and administrators scrambling between now and Aug. 19.

GCS has tightened its criterion for determining which students have to pay the $45 participation fee. Under the guidelines that had been in effect since the fee was implemented for the 2017-18 school year, a low-income student only had to meet one of three criteria to be eligible for a waiver of the fee. Athletics directors were notified in an email Thursday that students now must meet two of three requirements.

Leigh Hebbard, athletics director for Guilford County Schools, confirmed the change today.

“We’ve been working on it since the end of the school year,” Hebbard said. “It was a matter of coming up with what the new standard might be, how we would revise all the paperwork and getting all of that vetted.”

The most commonly met requirement for a waiver of the fee under the old guidelines was that a student was approved for free or reduced-price meals at school. That is still one of the criteria. The other two potential criteria are that a student be considered homeless or living in transitional housing or that the family is facing financial hardships such as significant medical expenses, three or more student-athletes, death of a parent or loss of home or job.

“We started with the door open really wide,” Hebbard said. “This is a way to ensure that the people who can’t afford to pay the fee aren’t paying the fee and the ones who can afford it are paying the fee.”

GCS officials held a meeting of athletics directors today to explain the new guidelines. Students must pay the fee or receive a waiver before they can participate in competition.

“We really want to make sure that people understand that if you can’t afford this fee, we’re going to try to work with you so you don’t have to pay it,” Hebbard said.

The school district’s so-called "pay-to-play" initiative was approved as part of the 2017-18 budget and was projected to raise $400,000 during that school year.

“It all boils down to budgetary concerns,” Hebbard said. “We’ve had budgeting concerns for 10-plus years. It’s not getting easier to fund everything we need to fund in the school district. … Somewhere you have to make some choices between the academic side of what we do and the extracurricular side of what we do.”

Hebbard said he doesn’t know how many athletes were granted waivers during the first two school years that the fee was in place. There was “no easy way to do that because it was handled at the school level in the past,” Hebbard said. Now, any request for a waiver will be handled at the district level by Hebbard for a couple of reasons.

“One is consistency, just to make sure they’re all being handled the same way,” he said. “Two is just to get something off the ADs’ plate at the school level because we’re constantly adding stuff to their plate.”

In recent years, a number of school districts across the country have begun charging students to participate in athletics. Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, the state’s largest district, has required an athletics participation fee at the high school level and at the middle school level since the 2010-11 school year. Those fees are $125 at the high school level and $75 at the middle school level per sports season for the 2019-20 school year.

Hebbard pointed out that GCS’ fee of $45 for the year at the high school and middle school level is significantly lower, and he doesn’t foresee the tighter guidelines for a waiver hurting many students.

“I don’t expect a big drop at all” in participation, Hebbard said. “A little blip is what would be my expectation.”

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Contact Spencer Turkin at (336) 373-7062 and follow @turkin35@twitter.com.

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