JOHNSTOWN -- At the beginning of this month, Greater Johnstown School District interim Athletic Director Mike Satterlee decided to take a calculated risk.
Satterlee had to decide what to tell the other school systems in the Foothills Council and Section 2. He had to answer the question, would Johnstown — beset with the challenge of having to privately raise $311,000 to fund its athletic teams — field all of its varsity, junior varsity and modified teams?
"We had an AD meeting, and I kind of stuck my neck out and committed that we were going to be there," he said. "I told them that we might have to pull the plug on some things at the last minute, but they were all for us. The unanimous response was 'whatever you need. If you have to tell us the day before the season starts that we have to cancel some games, no problem.'"
During Saturday's "Rock Out for Sports" event held at the Fox Run Golf Course, supporters of Johnstown's athletic teams helped ensure that Satterlee's gamble would pay off.
Approximately 500 people attended the fundraising concert, enjoying picture perfect weather, 50 raffle baskets assembled from items donated by businesses and individuals, games and musical acts, including: Jason Gill, Beth Zaje, Mike Bruce and Paul Meher, the Insolent Willies, OPM, Alyssa Hope and Brookline. The booster club also collected fees and sales percentages from food vendors and beverage sales by Fox Run Golf Course.
Satterlee said he was very impressed with the people who were willing to donate items for raffle baskets, and the musical performers who played for free to help out Johnstown sports.
"It's unbelievable the number of things we had to raffle off, Fox Run let us use their facility for free — I've been around Johnstown a long time, this is one my favorite events I've ever been at," he said.
Christine Krempa, Johnstown's varsity field hockey coach, has been leading the sports fundraising effort. She said the Rock Out for Sports fundraiser raised $12,341, bringing the total raised by Johnstown's Purple and Gold Booster Club to $230,493.
"We've also had a very strong week in straight donations, so when we update our total this coming Thursday, we expect to be at approximately $240,000," Krempa said.
Superintendent Patricia Kilburn announced on Aug. 8 the booster club had raised enough money for all of Johnstown's varsity and modified teams, but about $100,000 was still needed to field the JV squads.
Satterlee on Saturday said Johnstown has decided to start all of its fall sports teams, including the JV teams.
"I'm ow totally confident the money will be there," he said.
Johnstown eliminated nearly all funding for its after-school athletics programs after voters on May 21 rejected a budget proposal with a 35 percent tax levy increase. The budget failed to garner the 60 percent supermajority needed to override the New York state property tax cap.
The district has been grappling with a $4.3 million school budget deficit for the last several years, brought on by a combination of factors that include declining enrollment, increasing salary and benefit costs, and a failure to raise the district's tax levy high enough in past years.
District voters approved a $37.87 million 2019-20 budget with a 14.6 percent tax levy on June 18, which cut the budget deficit by about $1 million, enabling the district to restore $200,000 in transportation funding for its sports teams. However, the athletic teams would only play if private donors were willing to contribute the remaining $311,000 to fund them. Fundraising to pay for the cut sports programs began the next day with the "1,000 Citizens to Save Our Sports," which raised just under $95,000.
Krempa has been instrumental in leading the fundraising efforts. She said the effort has taught her a lot.
"What we've learned is that this community really cares about these kids, and not just this community, but the surrounding communities, reaching all the way to Albany. We've gotten checks from booster clubs in Shenendehowa, from Columbia, Saratoga, Gloversville, from Broadalbin-Perth. Two days ago, I got a donation check from a man in Troy who just said 'I think sports are important and I hope you reach your goal.' People really have stepped up to help these kids," she said. "The kids shouldn't be punished for adults having not raised taxes sufficiently for a decade. That shouldn't fall onto the shoulders of the kids."
Rich Scott, owner of the Fox Run Golf Course, said he has donated money and the use of his facility to help Johnstown sports. He said Johnstown's golf team has used his course as its home field for years, and he believes its important for the community and for the sport of golf to support youth athletics.
"Our youngest kid is in the program right now, he's five years old. You've got to grab them when they're young," he said.
Ken Hoefs, the varsity coach for both the boys and girls Fonda-Johnstown Swim team, known as FO-JO, said he lost one swimmer who decided to move to another state to connect with a swim program she liked, but other than that he's been pleased to see that 13 swimmers, 8 from Fonda and 5 for Johnstown, committed to swimming for the 2019 girls season, despite uncertainty about whether it would happen or not. He said Fonda also agreed to help split the $1,500 cost of a state-mandated lifeguard for the team's practices and swim meets.
"Johnstown originally paid for the full lifeguard cost, but that was one thing we were able to get a concession on," Hoefs said.
Aiden Fitzpatrick, a junior left tackle for Johnstown's football team, said he briefly considered whether he should move out of Johnstown due to the funding crisis for sports, but now he's hopeful sports will remain in place for the rest of his high school career.
"For the community to come together like this and give us the money to fund sports, that means a lot," he said.
Sports funding for Fitzpatrick’s senior year, 2020-21, will be contingent on voter-approval in May 2020 of a 15 percent tax levy increase. Johnstown school officials have said they still need tax levy increases of 15 percent for each of the next three school budgets in order to return to fiscal stability. Those tax levy increases will each need a 60 percent supermajority of voters to approve them.
Without the tax levy increases, Johnstown faces the possibility of closing its high school and kindergarten programs within three years.
Satterlee said school district administrators have committed to re-funding sports, if voters approve the 2020-21 budget.
Krempa said private fundraising for all of Johnstown's sports won't work two years in a row.
"We will not be doing this again. We can not ask the community to do this again. It's been a tremendous burden, not only on the fundraising committee, but also the community as well. We are not an affluent community, and we've also told those larger corporations that have given us money that we will not be back next year, because those are some of the questions they asked us," she said. "The budget needs to pass. If the budget doesn't pass, then there will be no sports."
Krempa said the Purple and Gold Booster Club's next fundraiser will be called "Drive for your School" on Sept. 7. She said Ford Motor Co. has agreed to donate $6,000 for the event during which 11 new Ford cars will be available for test drives at the high school. She said if 300 people test drive the 11 vehicles, Brown's Ford of Johnstown will match the $6,000, bringing the total to $12,000.
"There's no charge to anyone. We've got a six-hour window to get this done, so we're going to have to hustle. It's making sure every 15 minutes all 11 of those cars are out. There's no obligation to buy, you won't get anything in the mail from them," Krempa said.