NORFOLK - On any Friday night, the stands may not be packed, but ask people about high school football and they tell you they like the bands, the cheerleaders and the sense of community the games create.
Those images of "Friday Night Lights" come at a high price. Using the most conservative estimates, we found the cost of varsity football is only modestly off-set by ticket prices.
In 2011, Newport News Schools spent $356,000 on high school football while it brought in just $51,000.
Norfolk spent $215,000 on football while making $93,000.
Virginia Beach spent $463,000 on varsity football and brought in $209,000.
While school districts across Hampton Roads struggle to shore up student achievement with less money, criticism of the cost of high school football is relatively muted.
Some educators say the value of football cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
“The accountant (may say) 'man we lost so and so, (so) cut it.' To the community, (it's) extremely important,” Thomas Calhoun, president of the Norfolk Federation of Teachers says.
Other supporters argue football is a very small part of a district's budget. They say it helps youngsters to better focus academically and build relationships.
”It’s an opportunity for the staff and the students and the teachers to mingle and interact outside of the classroom,” Bill Brunke, vice chairman of the Virginia Beach School Board adds.
Critics counter the goal of education should be to raise sagging math and reading scores and graduation rates.
“I think it should go more to books. Sports is great, but it should be more recreational,” a concerned parent counters.
We found on average it costs $600 to outfit every football player.
Coaching stipends range from $245,000 in Virginia Beach to $77,000 for three high schools in Portsmouth.
Transportation costs for football in Newport News are an estimated $79,000; in Norfolk, the figure is $83,000.
Security for football games in Virginia Beach is $132,000.
Despite those figures, some people want to keep football
”They look forward to that, so cutting that, I just don’t see that,” a woman says.
”Without it, you are going to see more kids fail,” contends Cadillac Harris, a teacher and a long-time football coach.
Harris says with tight school budgets, districts need to consider other ways to fund the sport. He believes one answer is getting the business community to take a bigger role.
“We need to keep our eye on what’s really important. The jewel is the kid and making sure kids are successful," Harris stresses.
Our investigation also found most school districts couldn’t easily recall what they spend on high school football. That includes school board members, who vote on where to spend education dollars.