Frank McCourt helps LAUSD close sports funding gap

Faced with a $1.3-million cutback to the high school sports program in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the LA84 Foundation and Dodgers owner Frank McCourt have helped spearhead a fundraising drive that will enable more than 700 coaches to be paid and 75 high schools to maintain their sports programs for the coming school year.

The district is scheduled to make the official announcement at a news conference Thursday morning at Los Angeles Miguel Contreras Learning Center, where representatives from Nike, Chivas USA, the Dodgers and LA84 will join Board of Education President Monica Garcia and Superintendent Ramon C. Cortines.

“High school sports are vitally important to the development of men and women,” McCourt said Wednesday. “Our collective goal was to bridge a gap, step in where we could to make a difference. We know the city is going through some financial hard times.”

A projected $640-million deficit in the 2010-11 school year prompted the school district to institute a 25% budget cut in the sports program. In the fall, football programs were going to be reduced from having six paid coaches to four and freshman-sophomore basketball teams were expected to be eliminated. Additional cuts were planned for the spring.

The LA84 Foundation, endowed with surplus funds from the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, took the lead role in seeking a solution in early March. Foundation President Anita DeFrantz said she directed her staff to work with Barbara Fiege, the L.A. Unified director of athletics. LA84 then came forward to make a grant of $252,600 and began encouraging other community members to participate.

“It’s very clear this is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence,” DeFrantz said. “The stars may never align again where a group of individuals and foundations will see fit to come to the rescue this way.”

McCourt said he learned of the proposed cutbacks to sports after inviting a group of civic leaders to the Dodgers’ spring training facility at Camelback Ranch in Arizona late last month.

“Everybody was quite alarmed,” he said. “We went to work in a collaborative way. I indicated right then and there they should count me and the Dodgers in.”

McCourt pledged that the Dodgers Dream Foundation would help support baseball and softball. Steve Soboroff, chairman of the Weingart Foundation, said his organization is donating $150,000. Other community members will be sponsoring additional sports, such as Chivas USA for soccer and Nike for basketball.

Important to those involved is an understanding that L.A. Unified will be making a commitment to maintain the sports program in the future.

“The LAUSD is fully committed to funding its sports program as long as our budget allows it,” a district spokesman said. “However, the district, moving forward, will seek corporate support to ensure full funding for these programs.”

School districts from across the state have been grappling with similar budget shortfalls, and sports programs have become a target for cutbacks. In the Paso Robles Joint Unified School District, all coaching stipends for next year were eliminated and transportation funds cut in half. Coaches in Redlands have been told they must cut $100,000 from their district budget. Along the Central Coast, the Los Padres League plans to eliminate freshman-level sports. In Orange County, Capistrano Valley Unified schools cut coaching stipends this year and has no plans to reinstate them.

McCourt said it was important for community members in Los Angeles to intervene.

“I’m not so old I can’t remember high school sports myself,” he said. “They were a huge part of my upbringing and kept me on the straight and narrow. I’m the father of four boys who played three sports. It was a great way to help them stay healthy, stay out of trouble and learn about life.”

McCourt mentioned former major leaguers who grew up in Los Angeles and played high school sports, including such Dodgers stars as Don Drysdale, Eddie Murray, Willie Crawford and Willie Davis.

“I think the kids today deserve to follow in those footsteps,” he said.