BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — WEST NEWBURY — Some of Pentucket’s female athletes may have a chance to play ice hockey this year — but only those who can afford to pay the hefty price tag to participate.
At a meeting on Tuesday, Pentucket senior Liza Brackbill and three other young women athletes told the regional School Committee about the unique chance for their high school to participate in a cooperative ice hockey program for women. Brackbill said at least 10 students have already expressed serious interest in the concept, but without some financial support from the district, many of them will not be able to play.
In the end the committee agreed to join the pilot program with high schools from Haverhill and North Andover — but they would not agree to subsidize any of the costs.
Haverhill High School has decided to start a Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association-approved women’s ice hockey team this year. But because it does not anticipate having enough players the first year for a full team, it proposed entering into a cooperative agreement with Pentucket and North Andover.
Haverhill would be the host school and the majority of games and practices would take place at the Veterans Memorial Rink at Haverhill High School. Costs would be split among the three schools with each school assessed based on the number of student-athletes on each team.
The estimated price tag is $32,000 and breaks down as follows: coach’s salary, $5,600; transportation, $5,100; ice rental, $14,500; game officials, $1,600; game staff, $2,200 and athletic trainer, $3,000.
Based on 20 athletes per team, the estimated per-student cost would be $1,600. Haverhill intends to charge students a user fee and an additional fee for ice time, but it would be up to each school to decide individually how to cover these costs.
Pentucket Superintendent Jeff Mulqueen said his intention was not to add women’s ice hockey to the school’s roster of sports this year. He cautioned the school board against adding a new expense to the budget right now. Instead, he saw this as an opportunity for certain students who might want to take advantage of it.
Concerned about the district’s current financial situation, West Newbury’s Jill Eichhorst agreed and proposed adding it to the budget discussions for next year.
“If we are paying for the boys, I don’t see why we can’t pay for the girls to play,” argued Merrimac’s Brian Page. He suggested having the girls absorb half the cost, similar to what the boys do. Male hockey players pay $850 to be part of Pentucket’s team with the district kicking in part of the cost for ice time.
His colleague Wayne Adams stressed that hockey is the most expensive sport, but none of the athletic fees charged to students completely cover the cost for any high school sport at Pentucket.
“I think this is an opportunity that has been dropped in our lap,” said Chris Reading of West Newbury. Noting that women’s ice hockey was growing in popularity at the college level across the country, she urged fellow committee members to take a broader view of what participation in this sport might mean for Pentucket students — beyond just experiencing a team sport.
“There’s a lot of money in college scholarships for girls who play ice hockey,” she said.
For Reading it was also an issue of parity.
With a budget the size of Pentucket’s, “I think we can find a little piece of the pie for our female athletes.” She wondered if the district could partner with the non-profit Pentucket Athletic Association to find a way to cover the costs.
Referring to Mulqueen’s stated vision to create a “world class” district, Reading called the proposal “a world class opportunity.”
But Mulqueen responded that “world class” also means considering how best to allocate district resources. “I just don’t have an additional $16,000 to put toward it,” he said.
When asked after the meeting about how the board’s vote squared with the federal Title IX civil rights statute, West Newbury’s Chris Wile said his understanding of the anti-discrimination law was that a school district doesn’t necessarily have to provide the same types of sports teams for girls as it does for boys, as long as what it is spending on athletics overall is comparable for both genders. Wile said he was supportive of the concept but was unsure of where the funding could be found within the current budget to offer a subsidy to female ice hockey players.