If an upperclassman at Haverhill High School plays three sports, the athlete must pay $450 per year. Freshmen are charged less | $100 to play the first sport, $50 for the second, and no fee for the third | and families pay a maximum of $700 per year.

Budget cuts in the city's school system have forced Hillies to pay to play (sports) since 2002. And each year as the user fees increase, fewer Haverhill High students are participating in athletics, according to Peter Shanahan, Haverhill High School athletic director, who hopes to stop the bleeding.

"Unfortunately, the numbers (of students participating) are dropping every year," said Shanahan. "Why do Haverhill High athletes have to pay to participate in extracurricular activities? Cities similar to Haverhill, like Lowell, Lawrence and Methuen, don't have them (user fees). That puts us at a huge disadvantage."

Shanahan has researched user fees in cities across the state and recently submitted the numbers, along with his athletic budget, to the Haverhill School Committee.

Among all cities in Massachusetts, Haverhill athletes are paying the fourth highest user fees in the state, according to Shanahan, who is eager to eliminate the user fees completely, or at the very least decrease them.

"It's just not fair for the kids and their families," said Shanahan, noting that about 35 percent of city high schools in the state charge a user fee to play sports and that Haverhill High athletes are paying more to play sports than athletes from more affluent cities.

For instance, at Haverhill High, 30 percent of the students receive lunch for free or at a reduced price, while at Chelmsford High only 4 percent do. Yet Haverhill High students are paying a higher user fee, $450 for three sports, compared to the $275 that students at Chelmsford High pay to play the same number of sports.

Students in Newton pay the highest user fee in the state | $180 per sport or $540 for three sports per year. The next two highest are Medford and Peabody, where athletes are charged $150 per sport, followed by Haverhill, which charges its high school upperclassmen $300 to play the first sport, $100 for the second, and $50 for the third.

User fees are not charged to high school students in the state's eight largest cities | Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Cambridge, Brockton, New Bedford and Fall River, according to Shanahan.

Last year about $60,000 was sliced from Shanahan's budget. He said he hopes to get some or all of that money reinstated, which would enable him to reduce or eliminate the user fees.

Asked about user fees, Robert Gilman, Haverhill School Committee president, said he and school committee members will be reviewing Shanahan's athletic budget, "putting the data together," and meeting with Shanahan over the next few weeks.

"Peter (Shanahan) does a great job of advocating for the students," Gilman said. "For some kids, the user fee is very significant."

While Shanahan is pleased with the number of athletes participating in spring sports at Haverhill High, he noted that most of the spring sport athletes are involved in their third sport, and are not new athletes.

"What we saw was that a lot of kids came out who have played two sports already," said Shanahan. "We had very few kids coming out in the spring who hadn't been on another team."

And Shanahan said he attributes that phenomenon to the user fees.

"As user fees go up, participation goes down. That's the bottom line," Shanahan said. "Hopefully, we can at least get them lowered."

This Week's Circulars