By DAVID CARKHUFF/THE LACONIA DAILY SUN
LACONIA — Like an ill-timed lob, an effort to reinstate tennis in Laconia schools may arrive in front of school board members at the worst possible time, when they are grappling with budget cuts and a grim financial outlook.
"Given the kind of budget situation we're in, I'm not optimistic," said School Board member Michael Persson on Friday when asked about what he thought of reinstating tennis, a program cut from the district about three years ago due to budget pressures.
"Unfortunately, we have a limited amount of funds under the tax cap," Persson said.
The Lakes Region Tennis Association, a nonprofit organization of volunteers who are passionate about tennis, vows to bring tennis back to schools, and they say they can do it without seeking district funds.
"We just want them to at least put a sign-up sheet out to see what interest there is," said Kamal Gosine, head coach for the association, in a recent interview. The association won't be asking for a budget line, he said.
"This is totally free" for the school district, Gosine said.
On Friday, Gosine confirmed that he sent a letter to Superintendent Brendan Minnihan and other school officials floating the idea and asking for a decision.
This week, Minnihan reported that he received the letter, and noted, "This request would need to be discussed at a future school board meeting as well as discussed with other individuals. No decision has been made at this point."
Persson said new sports typically come with costs such as stipends for the coach, pay for officials and travel expenses. It's unclear if tennis could be folded into the school district cleanly without any cost to the district, but Gosine and others with the association are making this pitch.
In a Jan. 31 email to school officials, Gosine wrote, "We have the resources to help you in accomplishing these goals. What we need first is to get the schools to set up a sign up sheet at the middle and high schools. We are not going to cut any person from the team if they sign up. We will provide the equipment as needed, as well as some free boot camps to get the kids ready for the season, this we can do at your gyms. We can start the program in your gyms and then move to the public courts. Please let me know if we are in agreement and if you will post a signup sheet letting the kids know that we are here to help them and the schools with a Tennis Program."
One of the goals of the Lakes Region Tennis Association has always been to bring back tennis to Laconia High School through a grassroots tennis program for younger kids. The idea has been to create demand for a high school team by getting kids playing in elementary school and middle school, according to the association.
If it doesn't get done this year, Gosine said he fears it won't happen at all.
With a self-funded approach, a Laconia-based school-sanctioned tennis program could swell into a successful option, he said.
Persson said that tennis — like other sports or after-school activities — can provide much-needed activities for teens between 2 and 6 p.m., a "critical time" when students may be unattended and prone to get into trouble.
But any proposal for a new sport or activity will receive careful vetting by the School Board, based on the budget.
Last year, the Laconia School District cut its budget by $1.6 million, and Persson said teachers are the lowest paid in the Lakes Region as a result of deferred raises.
"We have teachers that are four years behind on the salary schedule," he said.
This year, Persson said he expects "substantial cuts" as part of another tough budget year.
Last June, in a budget hearing statement, Persson reported, "In order to get to the same pay levels given our 2015 teacher census, Laconia would need to increase its school budget by $1,705,163 to get to Gilford's level, $2,774,888 to get to Inter-Lakes' level and $3,217,711 to get to Concord's level."
The Laconia School Board Budget and Personnel Committee, chaired by Persson, is scheduled to meet at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7, to discuss the budget. The Laconia School Board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7. Both meetings are at the Laconia School District Administrative Building, 39 Harvard St.