The only charge for high school sports used to be the one spectators paid at the gate.

No more.

Athletes are paying to play in school districts across the country. Parents are being asked to share some of the cost of athletics and help close budget shortfalls caused by the recession and cuts in state subsidies.

Pay to play, restricted to a few states in the northeastern part of the country as recently as 20 years ago, is now a prominent part of the high school sports landscape.

This year, for the first time, three York County high schools -- York Suburban, Dover and Red Land -- have implemented a form of pay to play. Cedar Cliff High School, in Cumberland County, but part of the West Shore School District with Red Land, also approved an activity fee for this school year.

York Suburban is charging $25 for middle school and high school students. Dover is charging $50 for students in grades 9 through 12 with a maximum of $80 for families having a number of children involved in activities.

Red Land and Cedar Cliff both have $30 activity fees

and are charging $15 for physicals.

A trend: They're hardly alone. The National Federation of State High School Athletic Associations reported in 2005 that 33 states had pay-to-play fees in place at some schools.

More recently, an August 2010 survey of 179 public and private schools by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association revealed that 22 public schools and seven private schools were asking students to pay to play. The fees ranged from $5 per student to $50.

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association, the governing body for 774 senior high schools, does not collect information on how many schools have pay to play, according to Melissa Mertz, PIAA assistant executive director.

However, there's no doubt that activity fees are gaining traction in Pennsylvania and other states. Google "pay to play," and you'll receive a multitude of results. The great majority of the online stories deal with schools that have approved, or are considering, activity fees.

Nearby: Seven public high schools in neighboring Lancaster County have activity fees ranging from $25 to $60. That's an increase of five from recent years.

In Franklin County, Greencastle-Antrim School District more than tripled its activity fee, raising it from $30 this past year to $100 this school year because of a $2.3 million dollar budget deficit.

Another Franklin County school, Chambersburg, won't be charging for sports and other activities this year, but it will in the next school year (2012-13). The cost will be $100 per participant with a cap of $150 a family. Fairfield, in Adams County, has an activity fee of $30 per season, which includes the physical.

At York Suburban, business manager Dennis Younkin said the district's new fees should bring in around $24,000.

The high school athletic director, Rich Petersen, said the school is also charging $15 for physicals, a cost the district previously absorbed. He expects a savings of $3,500 to $4,000 by not taking on the full cost of the physicals.

"We also did other things to reduce our costs," Petersen said. "We eliminated off-campus banquets, which saved us $15,000 for the winter and spring seasons, and we should have additional savings this coming school year when the fall season is added. We combined our transportation. We used to send two different buses to away baseball and softball games. Now they (the players) ride together."

Debate in Dover: Dover school board president Phillip Herman said the activity fee will help the district cover the bus and fuel costs in providing transportation for sports teams and marching bands.

Not everyone on the Dover school board agreed with adopting an activity fee. The vote was 5-3 in favor.

Judy McIlvaine was one of the dissenters.

"I worry that imposing an activities fee will make parents encourage their children to forgo those activities that are so important to the educational process," said McIlvaine, who favors alternate fundraising measures, such as raising ticket prices for games.

The future: Will other York County school boards follow York Suburban's and Dover's lead and approve activity fees? Or will the boards find a way to continue funding sports without charging parents?

Asked about an activity fee, Dallastown athletic director Tory Harvey said he can't say for sure that "we'll never go there."

For now, though, there is no activity fee at Dallastown and most of the other York County high schools.

Harvey did have to cut $100,000 from his athletic budget for the 2011-12 school year.

"Dr. (Stewart) Weinberg, our superintendent, came to me and indicated we have a budget crisis. If the faculty, staff and paraprofessionals are going to be affected, it was only fair that the athletic budget be affected," Harvey said.

With input from members of the Coaches' Council, Harvey eliminated two sports, gymnastics and winter track, which affected 130 students. One gymnastics coach and four winter track coaches were dropped, and nine assistant coaching positions were cut.

The Juniata example: Another school district, Juniata County (northwest of Harrisburg), not only implemented a $250 per sport activity fee, but put the funding of the entire sports program in the hands of the parents and booster clubs.

The district made the move after voters defeated a referendum that would have increased taxes to make up a $3.4 million budget deficit. As a result, there was no money for athletics and other extra-curricular activities for the upcoming school year.

The parents and booster clubs will have to raise between $400,000 and $500,000 for the coming school year.

The plan raises a number of questions.

What if the money isn't raised for a particular sport?

Will the parents and boosters be able to raise enough money to keep the sports program in accordance with Title IX, the federal law that provides for equal opportunities for female athletes?

Will the school district, at some point in the future, resume funding the sports program?

Juniata Superintendent Richard Musselman said the fall sports are up and running, and he's optimistic the funds will be raised to sponsor the winter and spring sports.

"We may pull it off this year, but I'm not sure about next year," Musselman said. "Along with the funds from the activity fees, the boosters have had all different kind of fundraisers. I've eaten a lot of chicken, and I've had my car washed more times than I ever would have washed it myself. They're good people up here, but how long can that kind of enthusiasm be sustained?"

Musselman said he's heard that some students wanted to come out for sports, but couldn't afford it.

"But, we've also had community members step up (and contribute money to the athletic programs). We don't have a lot of industry up here (for corporate sponsorships). We're pretty rural, three red lights (in the county)."

Mussleman said he doesn't know what the future holds for the funding of athletics because of uncertainty over the economy and the state subsidy for the next school year.

"We would love to go back to the way it was (with the district providing the funding for sports and other extracurriculars). But, I don't know if we'll ever go back 100 percent to the way it was. Our budget right now for athletics is zero."

Ongoing debate: The Juniata case might be an extreme one, but it does illustrate the ongoing debate over the funding of high school sports programs.

Free-sports advocates consider athletics an extension of the classroom and think they should be fully funded by the district.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who feel high school sports should exist on a club basis with parents and athletes footing the bill completely.

The pay-to-play proponents fall somewhere in the middle, believing parents should help pay for their children's sports.

The California Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that pay to play violated the state constitutional guarantee to a free education. The ruling didn't stop the spread of pay to play to other parts of the country.

And it's likely more York County schools will be discussing the possibility of such fees in the future.

"That (pay to play) is not a discussion that the Central York School District board has had at this point, but I don't know what the future will bring with the governor calling for additional cuts in basic education spending," Central school board president Mike Wagner said.

"We'll just have to wait and see."

Pay to play did come up during the 2010 budget discussions at South Eastern School District.

However, it was not part of the final proposal.

"In last year's budget, it seemed too much to undertake at once, especially to come up with a fair and equitable (pay to play) policy," South Eastern School board president Ralph Marston said. "Some of the pitfalls (of pay to play) I feel are: What do you do if you have a family that can't afford to pay? Where do you stop? Do you stop at sports? Or do you include the band and the various clubs? Fortunately, we didn't need to revisit pay to play this year."

Marston added if the board gets another budget shortfall, pay to play probably will come up again.

"Certainly there are expenses (with sports and other activities), and you can't keep asking the taxpayers for the money."

Asked if pay to play might disappear with an improved economy and when tax revenues start flowing again, Marston sounded skeptical.

"My gut feeling," he said, "is that once you implement it, you're not going to take it away."

Reach Dick Vanolinda at dvanolinda@yorkdispatch.com or 505-5407.