THE BLOG
03/31/2014 12:12 pm ET Updated May 30, 2014

Athletic Boosters Beware: Government Orders Michigan School to Tear Down Fund-Raised Improvements

If you think you fund-raise for the benefit of your child's athletic team, think again. The rules of Title IX compliance, concerning gender equity, may prohibit you from accomplishing your goals.

The Plymouth High School Baseball Boosters in Michigan are stunned by a Department of Education decision and in this case, they are required by the federal government to immediately tear down fund-raised improvements to bleachers.

A significant turn of events at a program where I was a booster has raised an equity challenge as to how sports will benefit from booster's efforts. There is a proud history and significantly organized effort at the Plymouth/Canton school system for baseball fund-raising including golf tournaments, bowling, dances, school-spirit clothing, and concessions.

The baseball booster club raised funds over six years to change the configuration of their bleachers. Since spectators had trouble seeing the playing field, the boosters raised funds to revamp the bleachers for more visibility and provide stadium seating, installed by volunteers. Again, these were bleachers, places for the spectators to see the games, not perform the athletic competition.

Literal interpretation of the provisions of Title IX has dramatically changed the ability of athletic supporters to earmark their fund-raising goals. Gender equality is raising its head in unusual ways. A gender equity complaint was filed with the Department of Education by an anonymous source claiming a violation of Title IX. The reason the source requested anonymity has been withheld. The concern: new bleachers were not also constructed at the adjacent women's softball field.

Booster clubs can raise funds for this purpose but it places school administration in jeopardy with their responsibility to provide "in kind" benefits to an equivalent sport; in this case, women's softball. There is no requirement to share fund-raised money, but the school system must provide parity in some form.

Comparable fund-raising was not pursued by women's softball boosters and there is no public money available for renovation of the softball bleachers. There was also a complaint that the bleachers were not handicap compliant; easily remedied. Another complaint, a new scoreboard was constructed; there are plans for a new women's softball scoreboard.

The federal government issued the citation to the school system ordering them to tear down the new bleachers, claiming unequal facilities for like-sports... and tear them down they did without further ado.

According to Plymouth High School Superintendent Michael Meissen, "the school will hold onto the new bleachers until they can come up with a plan that adheres to strict government rules and is "fair to everyone." But the locals are looking for what is "fair" and why there is no challenge to the decision.

Title IX provides a mechanism for redress. But does this tear-down order go too far? Most agree that it does. This construction could not have been accomplished in secret, assuming the Plymouth Canton School System was not oblivious to this improvement. There must have been meetings with the athletic director, administrators, and athletic boosters.

The lingering message: by federal mandate your fund raising efforts, while well intentioned, may result in ill consequences for the very school district and athletic program you intend to help. But the fact is that all athletic booster programs are not created equal. Some work harder and smarter and have better success. Some don't raise funds at all. Is there parity between men's and women's athletic supporters? Not necessarily.

Shouldn't that have been part of the equation that the Department of Education would consider in their automatic tear down order?

Public outrage asks whether the DOE considered all factors about the bleacher project; fan seating was created by boosters, for fans, not a playing field issue but a facility issue nonetheless. With this perceived over-regulation by the federal government, have athletic boosters reached a point when they cannot choose their fundraising priorities without creating an inequity that the school system would need to remedy? In times of financial belt-tightening, disincentives for supporting athletics are counterproductive to the needs of schools. Boosters have always been eager devotees of kid's community sports, willing to work for their noble cause. They may not be so eager in the future.

Lest we not forget there is a team of ballplayers getting ready for their season, a community of athletic boosters demoralized, and a school administration that must comply with federal Department of Education orders. Hoping for a good resolution for Plymouth Canton baseball players, coaches and boosters.