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‘Unfathomable’ Washougal coaches, parents address possibility of no sports in 2023-24

WSD's athletics programs at risk if replacement levies fail to win voter approval in April

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Washougal High School runner Elle Thomas competes in a cross country race at William Clark Park in September 2022. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

The Washougal School District will likely have to eliminate all of its sports programs for the 2023-24 school year if voters knock down the district’s replacement levies in the April 23 special election.

“It’s pretty unthinkable, really,” said Eric Johnson, a basketball and track and field coach at Jemtegaard Middle School. “It almost seems like an impossibility. It’s unfathomable, something I never would’ve thought possible. But here we are.”

The elimination of Washougal School District’s athletic programs would “devastate” not only Washougal’s student-athletes, but the city’s sense of community pride, according to several coaches and parents interviewed by The Post-Record.

“The community needs to realize that 90% of these young people stay in their communities when they get out of school, so this isn’t just about education — it’s about the Washougal community,” said Johnson, an English teacher at Jemtegaard. “We want to develop citizens with strong character and integrity, and those things are fundamental aspects of student athletics. I would be devastated personally if we were to lose sports and the ability to connect to all of these kids.”

The district’s replacement educational program and operations and capital projects and technology levies, which would allow it to pay for not only athletics, but arts, technology and many other services not funded by state or federal governments, failed in February, earning 47% of the vote.

In the event of a double-levy failure, the district would most “likely need to cut most, if not all, sports programs,” according to Les Brown, the district’s director of communications and technology.

“The things the district is required to do for student academics would have to come first,” he added. “The board has asked the community for feedback about the levy failure and budget priorities through a community survey and listening tours. All feedback provided will help guide decisions on budget cuts that would be needed if the levies fail a second time.”

The district’s athletic programs cost $837,833 per year, a figure that includes funding for coaches’ salaries (which are completely paid for by levy dollars), equipment, transportation, field maintenance, turf repair/gym floor maintenance, and other expenses, according to Brown.

“Although families collectively contribute $71,389 per year in sports fees, this represents less than 10% of the total cost to run our athletic programs,” Brown said. “The EPO levy pays for the remaining $766,444 in athletics-related expenses. The fees help cover the cost of things like officials for middle school games, first aid supplies, athletic equipment and postseason travel.”

Leslie DeShazer, an early-learning teacher-on-special-assignment for the district and the parent of two WHS athletes (daughter Grace, who graduated in 2022, and son Harrison, a sophomore), said that the district is in for “a really rough year” if athletics programs are cut.

“For a lot of kids, their only shot at going to college is potentially an athletic scholarship,” she added. “And without the opportunity to perform and get those scholarships, their whole life trajectory could be changed. And I think there’s a lot of kids who may struggle to connect with their teachers but do connect with their coach. Their coach can motivate them to get the schoolwork done and help arrange times for them to see their teachers for extra support. I think the coaches are huge implementers of these kiddos going to school and working hard.”

Panthers cross country coach Tracey Stinchfield said that the elimination of athletics could force some Washougal High students to transfer to other schools.

“And those are the kids we want at our school,” she said. “They have good grades. They have good behavior. That’s who we need. It really would be devastating because we have kids who are looking at sports as a college and career path. And for some kids, (sports) are the reason they go to school. I see it with my own kids. When they have an after-school sport, they get up in the morning and they go to school because they have to so they can do their sport. When that sport ends, I get a lot of, ‘I don’t want to go to school today.’ We need (sports) to keep them motivated.”

School sports teach students how to manage their time, become leaders, support and work with others, follow directives, set and achieve goals, and be responsible and accountable, according to the parents and coaches.

“School sports teach you about dedication and hard work,” said WHS junior Elle Thomas, a two-time top-10 placer at the 2A state cross country meet and member of the Panthers’ track and field team. “I can take what I’ve learned in track and cross country and apply it to my academics.”

Johnson said that school sports have an especially powerful impact on younger students as well.

“As adolescents, they’re at an age where they’re facing a lot of tough decisions, a lot of negative influences, so gravitating to something healthy and positive is really important,” he said. “We use athletics to positively intervene in these young people’s lives and give them a healthy choice.

“I can tell you thousands of stories about kids who have struggled behaviorally in my classroom, and then they got into sports and changed — by the end of the year, they were really dialed in. And they learned to have pride in themselves. (Sports are) a real big game-changer in middle school. We really rely on it as one of our key interventions.”

Sports also serve as a “positive outlet” for students, according to DeShazer.

“Without positive opportunities,” she added, “it seems like the negative opportunities become more frequent.”

“Our youth need opportunities to engage in positive after-school activities,” Washougal School Board member Jim Cooper said in a news release. “The local levy is the way school districts in Washington state fund the sports and clubs that engage kids. Can you imagine what the Washougal community would be like with 1,000 teenagers hanging out after school with nothing positive to do?”

Nonprofit foundation considers next steps if levies fail again

Brown said that “it’s unlikely” that “even significant” fundraising could cover the cost of athletics for next year.

But Michael Minnis is still planning to give it a shot. He believes that the Panther Foundation, the nonprofit organization that he started in 2022, is “uniquely positioned to keep the kids on the field and on the court” in the event of a double-levy failure.

“The foundation was established to pick up where some of the funding (for athletics) fell off,” said Minnis, Washougal High’s boys golf coach. “We’ll pivot to meet (different) needs if necessary. I could see a scenario where the foundation becomes even more important and has an even greater impact on the community to support programs if (a double-levy) failure comes to fruition. I do feel like the organization may need to help rally the community to help support the kids and figure out ways where we can work with the community to give them an opportunity to continue to play.”

Minnis said that he’s “not pushing the idea,” but has “thought a lot about what the foundation’s response would be” to a double-levy failure.

“I think it would be an interesting opportunity for exposure and for people to understand why we’re here, to continue to prove that we’re 100% about supporting student-athletes,” he said. “If we look different next year, then we’re going to look different next year. That would mean that we’d be doing a lot more work than we’ve done in the past, and in the past we’ve done a whole crap-ton of work. There would be a big call for volunteers, that’s for sure.”

Minnis said that he would try to ramp up his efforts to establish relationships with local businesses to raise funds for the foundation if school athletic programs are cut in Washougal.

“I see it as an opportunity for some of the businesses to look at the situation, especially those businesses that have been here for eons, to step up and provide support to the community,” he said. “There’s a couple of worldwide organizations in Washougal which employ hundreds if not thousands of workers, and I think it’d be interesting to see if there’s a way that the Panther Foundation could partner with some of those (companies) and start a conversation. Those efforts have been made, but there just hasn’t been a lot of response, which is shocking to me.

“I could see a scenario where we would finally get the attention of (the entire) community and start working together more deeply than we have ever worked together in the past,” Minnis continued. “I think that’s kind of the dream (of the foundation), but it would be unfortunate that a situation like this would cause that dream to happen. It’s a crazy, weird dichotomy. I think it’s going to be a real reality check if (the levy does fail again), and I’m hoping that it would wake us all up to what it really means for the community to actually come together as a community.”