When Rockford (Ill.) Public Schools announced two weeks into 2011 that it was exploring a partnership that would transfer operation of interscholastic sports to the Rockford Park District, school officials cited several benefits.

When Rockford (Ill.) Public Schools announced two weeks into 2011 that it was exploring a partnership that would transfer operation of interscholastic sports to the Rockford Park District, school officials cited several benefits. Most importantly, outsourcing the school district's $3-million-a-year athletic program would allow sports to continue in the face of a $50 million school budget deficit for the 2011-12 academic year. Streamlining operations of the two entities also could make school sports a less expensive proposition and, officials hoped, even lead to improvements in the overall program.

But how significant the cost savings could be was still an open question heading into March, as officials continued to grapple with the very tangible administrative issues that such a merging would entail. Would, for example, the current athletic directors and coaches at Rockford's four high schools and six middle schools, plus those involved with the basketball program serving 20 or so elementary schools, be retained? And would the park district need to hire additional staff to oversee the influx of new activities?

As of this writing, numbers were still being crunched, staff positions weighed and strategies evaluated, and it was not known whether the idea would move beyond the proposal stage. But it was clear that for interscholastic athletics to survive in this community of 150,000 residents, something drastic needed to be done.

"There are really two issues facing us," says Mark Bonne, chief communications officer for Rockford Public Schools. "One is, What would happen to our sports programs in a partnership with the park district? And the other is, What would happen to our sports programs if we don't partner with the park district? If we can't make this partnership work, she [school superintendent LaVonne Sheffield] says she can't in good conscience cut academic programs and not touch athletics. She has made that comment repeatedly in public forums. So how athletics will work next year is up in the air, regardless."

The proposed solution, "Team Up! Sports Partnership for Students," is "bold and innovative," says Bob Gardner, executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, who is closely watching events unfold in Rockford. In a best-case scenario, the city's school and park districts could be establishing a new template that defies local boundaries as school districts nationwide continue to face dire budget realities and debate the merits of partnering with outside organizations. "We're very good at sharing and copying things that work," Gardner says. "So if this works in Rockford, I think you'll see other districts trying to make it work for them, too. This has the potential to really help some schools."

Rockford ranks high among Midwestern cities in unemployment, and with 80 percent of the district's students coming from low-income families or on reduced-lunch-price plans, Bonne says the district's "modest" athletic fees can't go any higher. Meanwhile, at least eight of 53 schools have been designated as likely to close, the district's Montessori and gifted-student programs are barely hanging on, and major staff layoffs are all but inevitable.

On the other hand, the proposed sports partnership - which would need approval by the Rockford Board of Education and the Rockford Park District Board of Commissioners - would require no new taxes and would not disrupt existing recreation programs.

Perhaps that's why it's gradually winning supporters. "As more and more people wrap their brains around the extent of the budget deficit, they are realizing this is a far-reaching problem that is touching many areas of our operation," Bonne says.

Rockford Park District executive director Tim Dimke says aligning school and park athletics would strengthen the feeder system for high school teams, allow Rockford schools to host championship games in park district stadiums and provide new opportunities to upgrade school sports facilities.

Rockford Park District executive director Tim Dimke says aligning school and park athletics would strengthen the feeder system for high school teams, allow Rockford schools to host championship games in park district stadiums and provide new opportunities to upgrade school sports facilities.

Currently, neither district shares facilities, but school and park officials have a history of working together successfully in other areas. Last year, through the use of federal dollars, the Superintendent's Summer Challenge allowed almost 1,000 students to participate in a variety of free, jointly organized academics, arts and athletics camps, as well as other activities.

Bonne stresses that the short-term goal of "Team Up!" would be to make the transition as seamless as possible for student-athletes. Schools would retain their own team identities, nicknames and traditions, and seasons would remain unchanged - although there is the possibility of year-round high school sports. Long-term, Bonne claims, there could be some major benefits. "The goal would be to allow the school district to focus on academics by allowing the park district to lend its expertise to our athletics program," he says. "There are efficiencies gained. They're operating athletic programs for youth, and we're operating athletic programs for youth. The general idea is that the park district ought to be able to provide the same services for less money."

Bonne offers field maintenance as an example. Whereas the school district pays $50 an hour for overtime, the park district is not bound by the same labor agreements and could accomplish the work for much less. Additionally, school administrators would reimburse park officials for the yet-to-be-determined costs of administering programs, and schools would maintain ultimate authority over those programs.

That last point is key for administrators at the Illinois High School Association, who initially thought Rockford schools would be violating at least three state association bylaws - including ones addressing program oversight, eligible competition and coaches' payment. But after meeting with park and school officials, IHSA executive director Marty Hickman told local media the plan "will fly."

"It didn't sound to me like they were turning their programs over to the park district," Hickman told the Rockford Register Star, stressing the importance of school administrators maintaining control of eligibility and coaching issues. "It sounded to me like they were partnering with the park district to save some dollars." (Hickman did not respond to AB's requests for an interview.)

While Bonne is unaware of any other Illinois school districts exploring similar partnerships at the high school level, Sterling Public Schools several years ago merged its middle school sports program with that city's recreation department, reportedly saving the district $30,000 annually in salaries and operations costs. But it also has led to fewer students playing sports, according to Sterling High activities director Greg King. "When you don't have your coaches out in the building and having direct contact with your student-athletes, I think sometimes you lose participation a little bit," King told television news source WIFR.com.

Rockford officials are worried about losing more than just a little participation, which is why the Team Up! partnership was pitched in the first place. Sheffield acknowledged anticipated skepticism in January when she and Dimke announced the idea. "Adults, understandably, are going to worry about losing their jobs, and the community will hear a lot of noise because of that," Sheffield said in a statement. "We are exploring this option only in the interest of putting children first."

"You hear a lot of talk about intergovernmental collaboration, but often it's just talk," Bonne adds. "If we preserve sports, we want to do it in a way that we still have a quality program, and that we offer sports equitably across all schools to all students who want to play. Other options might not allow us to achieve those goals."