Cracked and decrepit from overuse, the bleachers in the basketball gymnasium at Tahanto Regional Middle/High School in Boylston were becoming a liability. Budgets were extremely tight, and school officials had nowhere to turn.
"It was an unsafe situation," said Sue Boudreau, the Tahanto Athletic Booster Club treasurer. "We had to do something."
So Boudreau and other members of the club settled on an audacious plan: a $50,000 private fund-raising campaign for their local public high school, part of the Berlin-Boylston regional district. Two years later, after vigorous appeals for contributions and a $25,000 donation from the philanthropic Fuller Foundation, the new bleachers stand inside the gym, a testament to grass-roots determination and the enduring popularity of local sports.
As school districts face increasing costs, dwindling funding, and financially strapped municipal budgets, local sports advocacy organizations are helping to fill the gap. And in many cases, the fiscal troubles are forcing the booster clubs to become pivotal players in shaping the quality of athletic programs at high schools across the state, said Paul Wetzel, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association.
Traditionally, booster clubs have dwelled on the fringes of athletic programs at public high schools, raising money for nonessential expenses such as end-of-season banquets and team T-shirts, said Wetzel. However, their role is rapidly changing as schools become harder pressed to fund core athletic programs, he said.
"Eight or 10 years ago, booster clubs were not all that active," said Wetzel. "Now, they are going all out with much more extensive programs. And in some cases, they are raising money just so they can field the team."
The fiscal problems have driven local athletic clubs, parents, and athletes to extremes in a few instances.
At the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District, an athletic group has formed to underwrite the entire cost of a new football program for next fall, an expense expected to run $65,000.
Most suburban booster clubs make more modest contributions, but many have been transformed from sideline operations to critical tools in the fight to protect high school sports programs.
Todd Chisholm, president of the King Philip Sports Boosters Club, said his organization has drastically expanded its reach in the last few years, and now pays for items such as weights and batting equipment that in years past would have been covered by the regional school district, which draws students from Norfolk, Plainville, and Wrentham.
The King Philip club and other supporters of the high school are embarking on the group's largest, most ambitious project yet - a quest for $1 million to install an artificial-turf field at the high school.
Individual sports teams are also involved in their own private fund-raising in the hard times, and, on top of that, athletes also have to pay a $165 user fee per sport, Chisholm added.
But with the added pressure on the booster club to expand its fund-raising efforts, he said, a basic problem has emerged - too few people to handle too many details.
"That's the hardest part: to get people to volunteer," he said. "We would do much more, but you have to go with what you have for volunteers, unfortunately."
Laura Schindler, president of the Needham High School Athletic Booster Club, said the tight times in her community have luckily drawn a groundswell of interest, and the organization's membership has swelled from a mere six members a few years back to 25 this year.
"We've gotten the word out that we are concerned and that the athletic programs need help," she said.
But Schindler also said the club is facing increasing competition from other charities and local organizations vying for donations from residents, a concern echoed by Chisholm. Even though the organization in Needham has a strong volunteer base, it has witnessed a reduction in the amount of donations, she said. The local Lions Club, police organizations, firefighters, and other groups are also exerting effort for their causes as well.
"I really think it's because everyone's got their hand out, and community members have to decide who they are giving money to," said Schindler. "We've definitely seen a decline because so many people have their hand out."
Scott Perrin, athletic director at Newton South High, said the school's booster club has been playing an increasingly prominent role in raising money for sports programs.
The club has paid for certain "small compensations" recently, such as batting equipment and sleds for the football team. But Perrin said he is expecting the club to get more involved in the coming school year, as the city's fiscal situation worsens.
"We need to expand" the booster club's role, said Perrin, adding: "I think schools are going to have start leaning on them more."