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2009 December 28 - 12:00 am

MONEY TREE: Miss. Budget Cutters Targeting Spending on College Athletics

HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi’s community colleges will be taking a hard look at the size of their athletic budgets in the coming weeks after Gov. Haley Barbour’s recommended downsizing or eliminating athletic programs systemwide.

“This is an area that we are going to have to address,” said Eric Clark, executive director of the state Board for Community and Junior Colleges. “We have to do the numbers have to see what kind of cost-savings measures are on the table.”

Cost-saving measures are in demand these days, with the state budget projected to be reduced by $715 million for the next fiscal year, starting July 1. That puts community college athletic budgets, which Barbour said consumed $20 million in 2007, squarely in the line of fire.

“Intercollegiate athletics are an expensive endeavor,” Barbour spokesman Dan Turner said.

Neither Clark nor Turner could say how much money community college athletic programs generate to offset this cost.

“We have not done any analysis on that yet,” Clark said.

Barbour’s recommendation comes at a time when Pearl River Community College and Jones County Junior College are expanding their athletic facilities. PRCC is currently building a $1.175 million field house on its Poplarville campus. It is scheduled to be completed by early next year.

JCJC recently received a $250,000 check from Community Bank to help build a baseball and softball complex, scheduled to be completed by summer 2010.

PRCC President William Lewis said he believes that cutting sports programs, which range from football and basketball to soccer and golf, should be a last resort.

“Athletics have been part of the culture of Mississippi community colleges going back to the 1920s,” he said.

Lewis said that community colleges should look at becoming more efficient with their athletic programs. Options include limiting the size of travel squads, reducing coaching staffs or opting for opponents that require less travel, he said.

By far the biggest cost though is athletic scholarships, Lewis said. PRCC has more than 150 athletes on full or half scholarship.

Given the economic climate, that kind of spending may not be viable anymore, Turner said.

“The university and community college system’s first order of business is education,” he said. “It is fun to play football and basketball, but few people make a living at it.”

Lewis said athletic programs provide academic opportunities above and beyond athletes who are not ready or skilled enough for Division I programs. They’ve also given a reason for existence of other scholarships programs such as the marching band, dance and cheer team and cheerleading, he said.

“When you eliminate those programs, you eliminate opportunities for young people,” Lewis said.

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