It was a perfect day for a football game. Late August, at the Fawn Mountain school field. Dozens of people stood on the sidelines cheering for Ketchikan High School’s football team as they faced off against Seward High School.
You could see the support this community has for its young athletes. What you couldn’t see is the cost.
Ketchikan sports teams must raise tens of thousands of dollars each season for their players’ travel to compete against other schools. But something people are less aware of: Ketchikan teams sometimes pay for their competition to travel here for home games.
At a Ketchikan School Board meeting on August 13th, members of the football team said one of their three home games of the season was at risk – the game against Seward. Seward thought Ketchikan wasn’t going to pay the $8,000 originally promised for the team’s travel and they wanted to cancel.
In the end, things worked out. Ketchikan paid $8,700 for around 20 Seward players to fly here. But that wasn’t the end of the conversation.
“I’ve asked people and not gotten a very clear answer, and I’m confused and somewhat dumbfounded about our school district paying for travel for other communities to come here,” Borough Assembly member Mike Painter said at the Assembly’s August 18th meeting. He was talking to Superintendent Robert Boyle.
“We’re in awkward spot,” Boyle said. “People don’t have to come play us….we’ll be on their schedule but they won’t actually be required to come play us in Ketchikan.”
Boyle says to get teams outside of Southeast to come here, Ketchikan frequently has to pay them. Ketchikan teams are hardly ever paid by other schools to play anywhere. Painter asked how things ended up this way. Boyle responded, “We couldn’t get home games if we didn’t do it.”
I talked to the Kayhi football, basketball and baseball coaches. All those sports pay for other teams’ travel to Ketchikan each season. Basketball coach Eric Stockhausen says that among Southeast schools, there’s an agreement that you pay for your own team’s travel.
But sometimes the number of games against Southeast teams isn’t enough to fill out the schedule, or to get your team to state. So, Kayhi coaches look farther north, perhaps to the Anchorage or Kenai area schools.
Ketchikan has to pay its own way to those schools for away games. Why do those schools not pay for their travel here? Billy Strickland is the director of the Alaska School Activities Association, or ASAA. ASAA is in charge of game schedules, rules and regulations for school sports throughout the state. Strickland is also the former athletic director for Bethel School District.
“Off the road system schools, we’re more used to that philosophy of we have to pay the money to go,” Strickland said. “The urban schools or on-the-road-system schools have options that don’t cost as much. If you’re Seward, you’d probably really like to go to Ketchikan and play that game. But you’re not going to spend money to do it when you could drive to Nikiski, Kenai, Soldotna.”
Off-the-road-system schools are left with this choice: pay for their own team to travel up to Anchorage, Seward, wherever, or pay for the travel cost for one of those teams to fly down here.
Strickland says ASAA doesn’t and shouldn’t dictate who pays for travel to the games. He thinks the fact that outlying schools have to pay is just another aspect of living in a more remote part of the state.
“Those of us that live in remote places, part of that remoteness is just the cost of everything’s higher,” Strickland said. “Whether it’s a gallon of milk in the store or what it costs to get a basketball game. There’s a high cost of living in remote areas.”
“That is the facts. We live in Ketchikan if we want our kids to compete we have to come up with the money. That doesn’t mean it’s fair,” said Kayhi principal Sam Nelson.
Nelson thinks ASAA should make the financial cost more equitable throughout the state.
“We’re all Alaskans,” Nelson said. “Anchorage doesn’t have possibility of raising money to send their team down here twice? We do. They’ve got a lot more resources. So yeah, that’s the attitude they have right now and I don’t agree with it, it’s not fair.”
Nelson says if urban schools had to occasionally pay for travel to an off-the-road- school, it wouldn’t be a crushing burden.
But that’s not the attitude at every off-the-road system school.
“I think it would go outside of ASAA’s legal jurisdiction. This would go way outside mandate,” said Brian Freeman, the former activities coordinator for the North Slope Borough School District.
“The reality is, for where we live, if we didn’t pay for team to come up here, we wouldn’t have a game,” Freeman said. “People would not pay to come to Barrow,”
He says Barrow has to pay travel costs for all non-league home games. Their football team paid for four teams to travel to Barrow this past season, which added up to around $44,000.
Freeman says the North Slope Borough School District budgets approximately $1.8 million each year just for activities travel. In Ketchikan, the district’s total activities budget is about $1.2 million, with a large portion of that going toward travel.
The coaches and athletes themselves also have to raise thousands of dollars outside of what they’re given from the district.
Kayhi principal Nelson says as long as things remain like this, Ketchikan will keep paying for other teams to come here, because home games benefit the community and the students.
“There’s gonna be the money spent in our community, the fans get to come and watch their kids play,” Nelson said. “The big thing is our kids aren’t on the road. We’re not missing two or three days out of school to go up and play somebody. And as a parent, I’d like to watch my kids play”
At football games like the one against Seward, travel cost doesn’t seem to matter once the players get on the field.
But it’s something the teams will continue to struggle with each season.
“I mean it’s intense fundraising these kids and families have to do,” said former Kayhi football coach Les Silva. “And I think Alaska can come up with a better way to help these rural villages and isolated places like us.”
The Ketchikan School Board is trying to move some of that financial burden onto the state. The Board recently voted to ask the Alaska School Board Association to lobby the state legislature for a funding pool that would help with activities travel for outlying communities.