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Athletes sidelined as bills go unpaid


Every day after school, Jermaine Bolden can't wait to get a basketball in his hands. Game days are the best for the senior and his Douglass teammates - at least when the bus comes.

"The third time the bus didn't show up, we sat around and everybody just looked at each other for a couple hours," said Bolden. "Then we wanted to quit. It was like nobody cared about us anymore."

Bolden and his teammates aren't the only ones left feeling that way.

In Baltimore this winter season, 64 high school basketball games as well as some wrestling matches and swim meets have been postponed because there weren't enough buses designated to transport athletes. The basketball postponements occurred from Jan. 15 to Jan. 30, but the problem continues for other sports.

The bus shortfall, due partly to the district's failure to pay contractors, is just one of the difficulties hampering the city schools' athletics department. Over the past three months, basketball referees and some coaches have been paid late or not at all.

The district's school transportation office has been in disarray for months, as the office and one of its bus contractors are being investigated by the state prosecutor's office over alleged improprieties.

Officials from several bus companies told The Sun that late payments have caused them to stop making trips for sports. There have been many delays as a result.

On Tuesday, Poly's wrestling team waited 90 minutes for a bus to its match at Overlea. Last week's city swimming championships were delayed 45 minutes to wait for several teams that did not get buses. At least one track team had to catch an MTA bus to a meet at the 5th Regiment Armory.

'A chaotic situation'

"It's been a day-to-day situation," said Bob Wade, the coordinator of athletics for the city schools. "We don't know how many buses we're going to have available for athletics on a daily basis."

The reassignment of one of Wade's assistants appears to be at the heart of late payments to basketball referees and emergency coaches, the term for those not on staff.

As of yesterday, referees had not been paid since December, said Wayne Randall, who assigns officials to city boys and girls games. A number of emergency coaches said they had received their last pay as much as three weeks late.

Randall and many of the city's athletic directors said the payment problems for officials and coaches stems from the reassignment Jan. 5 of Ruth Jackson, an assistant in Wade's office for 23 years. Wade declined to comment about Jackson's role.

School system spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt said the delay in payments to bus companies, officials and some coaches results from a "staffing shortage."

She said more than 700 positions had been eliminated as of Jan. 5 to help alleviate the city schools' $58 million deficit. As a result, Jackson is now working as a secretary in the National Academy Foundation at Lake Clifton.

"We've been in a chaotic situation since we lost [Jackson]," said Poly athletic director Mark Schlenoff. "All the supervisors through the years turned that office over to her and let her work her magic. Then, they pulled her out and did not replace her and said that office can function. Now, emergency coaches are ready to walk out and officials are ready to quit."

Several athletic directors said the city schools' $58 million deficit is not the cause of the athletics department's plight. "The money is there; it's just the process," said Mervo athletic director Woody Williams.

The city athletic department has a $3.29 million budget allocated in July for the 2003-2004 school year, said Pyatt. That funding is set aside to cover expenses such as transportation, coaching salaries and referees' fees for all sports from September to May. That amount is up from last year's $2.9 million, she said.

Pyatt said yesterday that the district has paid all but one of the nine bus companies contracted for athletics.

Sandra Carpenter, director of public relations for Durham School Services in Austin, Texas, said her company did not get paid for November sports trips until Tuesday, a week after The Sun began making inquiries.

Durham, which has 61 vehicles and 68 drivers in Baltimore City, stopped athletic runs as of Jan. 1 due "to the district's financial situation and payment history," Carpenter said.

Prospects for making it through the spring athletics season appear poor as Durham is among several companies that have stopped sports runs because of late payments. There were similar problems last spring, a season that involves eight sports, up from five in the winter.

"It has never ever been this bad," said Obie Barnes, Forest Park athletic director for 13 years and the Foresters' football coach for 34 years. "The biggest detriment in this whole situation with the buses and the money is the quality of our program. I think we're going to survive, but the quality of our program will not be as good."

Several officials, coaches and even one bus company representative said they keep working because of the athletes.

"When you tell them there's no game, you can see it in their faces - like, not again," said Southside athletic director Dana Johnson, who also coaches the boys basketball team. "It hasn't stopped them coming to practice, but I can be sure every day we have an away game, the first question is, 'Are we going to get a bus?'"

Athletic directors can never be sure a bus will come, said Johnson, whose basketball teams twice failed to get one.

A few times, buses have not returned after the game. Forest Park's boys basketball team was stranded at a road game and parents drove the team back to school, said Barnes.

Carpools and policy

The Sun has also learned of many instances in which teams have carpooled to and from events - a violation of the city schools' transportation policy.

Several sources, including two parents of athletes, said carpools have been used frequently for several years during the spring season when the number of sports puts the greatest drain on the bus fleet.

On game days, athletic directors said they may receive a call from a staff member in the pupil transportation department to let them know there is no bus available. The call sometimes comes after athletes have already missed their last class to wait for the bus.

There are simply not enough buses to meet the demand, said a source familiar with the city schools pupil transportation department who asked not to be named.

Buses for sporting events are assigned on a weekly basis, said the source, but when too few buses are available at the beginning of the week to cover all the contests, a few more are assigned on a daily basis.

James King, owner of J. King Transportation, provides only a few buses on a daily basis. King, who said he has been paid in a timely manner, said a pupil transportation staff member calls him almost every day between 9 a.m. and noon.

"She'll say, 'James, how many buses can you give me today?' Some days, she has trips where no contractors want to do the work. Some days you don't have any drivers. Some days, you have other commitments," said King, who serves only athletic events for the city but handles regular school-day runs in Howard County.

Barnes and Schlenoff pointed to the change in dismissal times that began in the fall of 2002 as a large part of the problem. At that time, city schools officials switched the high school dismissal times with those of the middle and elementary school students. Instead of 2:30 p.m., high schools students get out between 3:05 and 3:40 p.m.

Most athletic events are scheduled to begin at 3:45 p.m., so buses need to drop most athletes off by 3:15 p.m. for pre-game routines, a conflict with the time most buses are transporting middle and elementary school students home, said Barnes and Schlenoff.

Pyatt said the dismissal times are being reviewed and likely will be changed in September, to provide more buses to transport the athletes.

Now, Pyatt said, athletes have to get on the bus by 2 p.m. "Buses are assigned to sporting events in addition to their regularly assigned bus route due to a shortage of buses and drivers," she said.

"When we used to get out of school at 2:30," said Barnes, "we could start contests on time and get the kids home at an earlier hour. Baltimore City said they went to this to save money."

Reginald Hill, owner of Hill Transportation, which operates 15 buses in the city but will no longer drive for athletic events, said bus companies used to compete for the trips to games.

"That was the big argument: 'Who got the most? Give me some more.' Now the argument is, 'You take it, because I don't want it.' Nobody wants to do it anymore. It drives up your costs. You have repairs, fuel costs and you don't know when or if you're going to get paid."

Referees cry foul

Basketball officials aren't sure when they're going to get paid either.

Some referees have stopped working games because they have not been paid since mid-December, said Randall, of the International Association of Approved Basketball Officials, Board 290, which assigns officials in Baltimore City. Of 102 members, he said, about 35 are willing to keep working.

Brandon Williams and Steve Carter, who officiated Monday's Southern-Douglass boys basketball game, said they have worked 50 games between them. Williams has been paid for one game and Carter for two.

"It's unfair, really, that I have to work so hard to get to games - dealing with the traffic in the city - and to not get paid for my services," said Williams.

Randall said he has repeatedly called several city offices, including those of chief executive officer Bonnie Copeland and director of labor relations Donald Rainey, to find out why no one is getting paid, but he has gotten no response.

"Somebody better respond if they want officials," said Randall. "We're running out and the ones that are leaving tell me they can go somewhere else and get paid."

Officials, who arrive an hour beforehand, have shown up to work all 64 of the postponed games because they could not be notified on time, said Randall.

That has cost the city, because "once they show up, we're obligated to pay them," said Wade.

At the going rate of $54 per varsity official and $44 per JV official per game, the postponements have cost the city $6,272, said Randall.

No games have been postponed for lack of officials, although Randall said, said that day may be approaching.

"We're barely making it," said Randall. "I have some people who are hanging in with me because they care about the kids, but I don't know how long I can last. Tomorrow, they could say they're not going to show up and I can't blame them."

Emergency coaches could say the same thing.

If they get fed up with late paychecks and leave, the loss could hurt small schools the most. Forest Park, for example, has 13 emergency coaches and only two on staff, said Barnes.

"I'm the only [coach] on staff there in the fall season," said Barnes. "We're almost totally dependent on emergency coaches."

The next paychecks for emergency coaches are due to be paid tomorrow along with the monthly stipends for athletic directors and coaches that come with their regular salaries. However, several athletic directors said Wade has warned them that the paperwork Jackson used to process may not have been done and that no stipends will be paid today.

'It's not out fault'

Worries about all of the problems facing the athletic departments are trickling down to the student athletes too.

"I don't know whose fault it is, but it's not our fault," said Jerrell Green, a senior on Southern's No. 1 boys basketball team. "I hope they don't think about cutting this season, because the city isn't paying its bills."

Poly's Schlenoff, who plans to retire in June, is worried about the future.

"God help the Baltimore City public schools if the program gets to the point where we can't keep kids in this after-school program on a daily basis in terms of what might be happening if they have all that time on their hands," he said. "God help the city of Baltimore. Basically we've got good kids, but these kids wouldn't know what to do if we told them they had to leave at 3:30 in the afternoon."

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