For student athletes tucked away in remote parts of Hawaii, playing sports can require much more than physical fitness and drive.

The expense of transportation to and from tournaments can cost a lot of money — often too much for athletes to make it to the game. That forces some public schools such as those on Molokai and Lanai to pick and choose which students can compete. Some schools must use worn out uniforms they can’t afford to replace and rely on equipment with years of wear and tear, leaving athletes more prone to injuries. Sports departments sometimes need to devote valuable time to fundraisers that might be better spent on team practices and study sessions.

State funding for Hawaii Department of Education athletics programs has been cut by a third over the years since the Great Recession, from about $13.8 million in the 2008 fiscal year to roughly $9.2 million for the fiscal year that starts this October. Athletics officials say that money has been stretched so thin — particularly on neighbor islands where transportation costs are highest — that it has prompted several ongoing campaigns for private donations to keep sustain school sports.

Hawaii’s public school athletes, however, might score this year.

Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, has introduced a bill to restore funding for public school athletics. In its current version Senate Bill 3083 seeks $2 million in additional general funds that the DOE would use to pay for more coaching and assistant coaching salaries for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Ige said the bill arose out of numerous conversations he had with school administrators, coaches and teachers across the state about the need for a big boost in athletics funding.

“The thing that became clear is that, for some students, athletics is one of the most effective ways to reach them,” said Ige, who played tennis and baseball as a student at Pearl City High School.

But some critics argue that the $2 million could be better spent on other critical education needs. Educators point to much-needed upgrades for Hawaii’s aging, sweltering public school classrooms and the lack of a statewide preschool system for 4-year-olds, to emphasize what the state might sacrifice to restore funding school athletics.

“You cannot succeed in a classroom if you are not allowed to enter one, and you certainly cannot ‘stay motivated’ if all of your energy and strength are drained just trying to keep down your body heat while in a classrooms,” wrote educator Matt LoPresti in testimony on SB 3083. He was referring to both the lack of air conditioning in Hawaii classrooms and the one-year delay in kindergarten admissions for late-born children that will soon go into effect.

Critics also highlight that the man behind the athletics bill — Ige — is running against Gov. Neil Abercrombie in this year’s Democratic primary, and some wonder whether he is waging a political campaign from his influential perch in the Legislature. Asked about Abercrombie’s State of the State address just after the speech in January, Ige stressed the importance of “cautious” spending and balancing the state’s budget.

Ige told Civil Beat last month that the Legislature’s budget priority would be to “ensure that it is sustainable” and to focus on paying for core services before spending more money on programs.

Still, Ige and others emphasize that SB 3083 reflects a restoration of funding rather than an unprecedented allocation. An investment in athletics, they add, is an investment in public education as a whole given the formative role sports play in many students’ academic careers and professional futures.

The bill moved out of the Education Committee with some amendments earlier this month and still has to be heard by the Ways and Means Committee. But with Ige at the budget committee’s helm and in one of the most powerful positions in the Senate, the measure has a good shot at advancing.

The Education Committee received nearly 40 pieces of written testimony, with all but LoPresti’s expressing support for the measure. Proponents of the bill range from school athletic directors and county council members to community organizations and labor unions, including United Public Workers and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Many of the bill’s proponents cite the exorbitant travel costs for schools on the neighbor islands, some of whose students must travel by boat to attend the nearest interscholastic game. For teams to get to and from Molokai it costs $109 a head, according to Molokai High School’s Athletic Director Hokulani Haliniak. That school’s athletic budget shortfall this year is $32,000.

Molokai High, where nearly two-thirds of the 340 or so students play sports, has had to cut kids from its team rosters due to costs. The school only employs two full-time coaches for all sports, relying on volunteers to help out with the rest of the program. The school can only send its cross-country running team to three of its eight scheduled track meets. And Molokai High hasn’t had a full-fledged junior varsity program for years.

“The opportunities are few and far between here for our high school kids,” Haliniak said.

Meanwhile, at Hana High and Elementary School, another school whose student athletes have suffered from the cuts, some students are using five-year-old uniforms, according to the school’s athletic director, Malofou Moeai.

‘Hierarchy of Needs’

But some critics say the public resources could be better spent on other education expenses rather than extracurricular sports in which only a fraction of the state’s student population participate. Approximately 25,000 Hawaii students participate in public school sports. That is less than 15 percent of the DOE’s entire enrollment.

Johnnie Murphy, a teacher at Kohala High School, wrote in a comment on an earlier Civil Beat post about SB 3083 that the state should instead spend the money on college-and-career-readiness programs.

Meanwhile, LoPresti, a professor at Hawaii Pacific University who has run for public office in the past, said he is appalled that Hawaii’s lawmakers are considering the bill when “we have basic obligations to the education of our children that aren’t being met.”

LoPresti pointed to the thousands of late-born children, including his own daughter, who are being blocked from kindergarten this year because of the upcoming change to the entry age. It’s unconscionable, he said, that lawmakers want to appropriate money for school athletics when many families like his own are being forced to pay for another year of preschool or private school tuition because the state is changing its kindergarten rules.

“How dare we consider funding extracurriculars,” he said, acknowledging that playing sports in school had a positive impact on his own life. “There is a hierarchy of needs here.”

But Ige said that sports is in fact a top priority for some schools and that more money for athletics would boost student achievement rather than detract from it.

“We need to reach different students in different ways,” he said, adding that sports can often academically motivate students who wouldn’t otherwise excel in the classroom. School athletics programs typically provide tutoring and require that students maintain a grade point average of 2.0 or higher.

Ige said he’s personally experienced the difference that sports can make in a kid’s life, pointing to lessons about discipline and teamwork.

Moeai, of Hana High, said school sports have helped keep the rural town’s students grounded and on-track, citing one female student who got a full scholarship to play volleyball at a mainland university.

“It does provide that gateway to the next level,” said Moeai.

But Haliniak said SB 3083, if passed, would only make a dent in the DOE’s athletics deficit. Molokai High and the rest of the state’s public schools would still have to contend with a slew of unfilled coaching positions and travel costs, she said.

“But maybe I won’t have 20 gray hairs next year,” she said.

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