Kids across Minneapolis are playing badminton without racquets and sharing the same jersey number at soccer games. They're piling into Grandma's minivan to get to practice or games across town.

For the city's thousands of teens, school sports have become a do-it-yourself effort as the effect of back-to-back budget deficits shows up at Minneapolis Public Schools' fields, courts and swimming pools. Cutbacks are coming right in the middle of sports seasons and prompting unease as next school year's $33 million deficit looms.

"People had to rely on parents and coordinate," said Emma Schluter, a Minneapolis South High School senior and soccer captain. "It's definitely something that became much more of an issue for ourselves, rather than the school district supporting us."

This year, every high school lost a football and volleyball coach. Parents tick off the problems their kids are facing: too few uniforms, buses and coaches.

Middle school sports have also been slashed. Schools are left to grapple with the fallout from a 14 percent cut to athletic funding last year and pinched athletic finances for the past few years. They expect to dip into carry-over funds to match expenses.

The district reports it isn't seeing some of the parents' examples of cutbacks. Shortages arose because of several factors, including budget tightening, said student support services executive director Keith Brooks.

Donovann Bower, a sophomore at Roosevelt High School, said his junior varsity soccer team played with mismatched jerseys this year. With money tight, the school prioritizes the varsity team, he said. His mother, Jeanette Bower, plans annual car washes to help kids earn money for sweatshirts.

"If I can, as a parent, raise money for my kids on the side to provide things that the school can't provide, then I'm going to do everything I can do to raise that money," Bower said.

Athletes like senior Maddy Tennant, the other South High School soccer captain, feel the financial disparities when playing suburban competitors on their fields. In the suburbs athletes often have better stadiums, and some have had access to competitive sports since they were much younger.

"I wonder how much better we would be if we had the same resources," Tennant said.

Looming budget concerns

This year, Edison High School had to turn away soccer players because it couldn't afford a third boys' coach. These and other shortages have prompted parents such as Greg Oliver to point to what they call inequity issues.

While district athletic officials say every high school gets the same funding for coaches per sport, schools can build on that amount through a combination of student participation fees, gate fees and grant funds. Schools with winning teams, wide community support and the facilities to host evening games can raise extra money that can pay for extra coaches and sports supplies.

In response to complaints about "haves and have-nots," the school board directed the district to study the differences in sports funding and present its results in the coming months. District athletics officials said they have heard comments about fairness.

"When kids have fewer opportunities when they're young, we see the results in the classroom and we see the results on our high school teams," said board treasurer Jenny Arneson at a fall board meeting. Arneson has championed the study.

The revenue numbers can be examined in different ways, yet disparities show up each time.

For example, Washburn High School will make more than double the North Side schools when total revenue is considered. But that changes when the number of student athletes is factored in.

A Star Tribune analysis of projected per-student athlete revenue at high schools shows that two of the poorest schools, North and Roosevelt, will bring in the most per-student money, thanks in part to low student participation numbers. Roosevelt also benefits from evening games on its lighted field, and Minneapolis North High School enjoys strong ticket sales with its string of recent state championships in football and basketball.

The higher household incomes on the South Side make it easier for families to raise money to supplement what the district can provide. But that prompts more parent questions: Is it fair that wealthier schools can raise outside funds to plug budget gaps? Should the district pool all schools' revenue, carrying money from revenue-rich schools to those with less?

This kind of variation is inevitable, the school district says. Yet parents districtwide say sports are critical to keeping kids in school.

Sports have "a huge impact" on academic success, too, said district athletic director Trent Tucker. That's why Minneapolis district policy states that all students can play, regardless of their ability to pay the participation fee — generally $60 per sport, though reduced if a student qualifies for lunch subsidies.

"The beauty of athletics is that it coincides with academics," Tucker said. "Those two are like a marriage."

Uncertain futures

What lies ahead for athletics is unclear as Superintendent Ed Graff and Minneapolis officials figure out what will go to fix next year's budget deficit.

"We have a grand opportunity in terms of our $33 million deficit to look at our core values as a district and look holistically at the students," Brooks said.

The thought of more cuts to already slim programs makes parents uneasy. South High soccer parent Scott Schluter said students are picking up on the budget cuts.

"The ones that are older that are aware of it feel frustrated that they don't know exactly what's going to happen," Schluter said.

At Southwest High School, Jeanne Erickson Cooley drove students on the C and junior varsity baseball teams to games last year — though her own son played on the varsity team. If the district's financial troubles force more cuts, she said she's not sure what more the parents can do.

"Teenagers — it's so freaking hard for them," she said. "This is the thing that kept my kids going."

Beena Raghavendran • 612-673-4569