Donations help restore funding for some Oakland school sports, but not bowling

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When Hannah Hoang first picked up a bowling ball as a member of her high school’s team, the Oakland High School senior said she was a nervous wreck. But as her gutter balls became spares and her spares became strikes, she said the sport helped her center herself. Bowling “taught me how to compose myself and it taught me how to control my emotions,” Hoang said.

This year, though, Hoang won’t be finding calm at the bowling alley. In late August, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) cut funding for the high school sport, along with nine others as part of an attempt to close the district’s deficit, which was $15 million at the beginning of the last school year. Yet despite receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from community donors to support high school athletes, district officials have no plans to continue funding bowling.

For students affected, the cuts mean more than an adjustment to their after-school schedule. “It’s kind of sad and depressing to know that one of your favorite sports aren’t a part of the school. One of your identities—it’s not there anymore,” Hoang said.  

The athletic cuts have been contentious since their beginning. On August 24, two weeks into the semester, Superintendent Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell announced cuts to golf, badminton, lacrosse, swim, tennis, volleyball and wrestling in a letter to the community, writing, “We apologize for the late notice on these changes, but unfortunately, our budget development process was behind schedule this summer, and it wasn’t until a few days ago that staff determined how best to make the necessary reductions.”

But critics quickly raised questions about the legality of the cuts. A San Francisco Chronicle review of the plan revealed that nearly two thirds of the student athletes who would have been affected are female, making the plan a potential violation of Title IX, a federal law that demands that schools provide equal athletic opportunities to boys and girls. District spokesperson John Sasaki admitted the mistake and said that district staff was working on solutions. OUSD staff began soliciting large donations to reinstate some of the sports and created a crowd-funding page to make it easy for community members to donate directly to the district’s athletic programs.

After Johnson-Trammell announced the cuts, an anonymous donor quickly stepped up to cover the cost of this fall’s girls’ golf and tennis. And on Friday afternoon, Raiders president Marc Badain arrived at Oakland Technical High School with two Raiders cheerleaders, star running back Marshawn Lynch’s mother Delisa Lynch (Lynch and her son are alumni of the school), and an over-sized check for $250,000. The donation fulfills half of the district’s stated fundraising goal of $500,000.

“When we read that these programs were in jeopardy and these kids’ dreams were in jeopardy, we knew we had to answer the call and step in and help.” Badain said, standing in front of an Oakland Raiders backdrop surrounded by tennis rackets and golf balls that the team was donating, along with their financial contribution.

After the press conference, Lynch encouraged Edana Anderson, whose daughter Hannah plays golf for Oakland Tech. When Anderson mentioned that her daughter hoped to play golf in college, Lynch, whose own life was transformed by her son’s athletic pursuits, said, “Yes, yes, that’s what it’s all about.”

Lynch said it was nice to be back at her alma mater, but that she never really left. She still regularly attends talent shows and other events at the school, and said she cares deeply about the wellbeing of the community. “I’m a big believer in the village,” Lynch said.

District staff have not yet officially tabulated donations, but Sasaki estimated that they had received about $350,000 as of Friday afternoon. “We hadn’t really intended to do this, but one of the great things about our community is that they show up when there’s a need,” Sasaki said.

Sasaki hopes to raise more than the initial half-million goal, so that future years can also be covered. As funds come in, priority will be given to reinstating upcoming winter sports, he said. Sasaki said that he was confident that wrestling would return this winter, recalling a recent encounter with a student wrestler. “I told him, ‘You better be training,’” he recalled.

But even as patrons have chipped in to support young athletes, the long-term futures of many sports remain uncertain, and bowling will not return as a district-funded sport, Sasaki said. “It’s not a CIF sport. It’s not a sport kids are using to get scholarships to school,” Sasaki said, referring to the California Interscholastic Federation, the state governing body for high school athletics. “Bowling has been a great outlet for students who couldn’t play football or didn’t want to swim, but first and foremost our job is educating kids.”

While bowling was one of the least popular sports in the district—Interim Oakland Athletic League Commissioner Sonjha Phillips wrote in an email that 48 students participated last year—it was also one of the district’s least expensive sports per student athlete, costing $6,700 in total, or about $140 per student. Golf and wrestling, both slightly more popular than bowling at 51 and 52 students respectively, each cost the district more than $400 per student.

Bowling’s new status means that students are responsible for covering their own transportation instead of using vans provided by the school district. Students must also “self-coach” or rely on volunteer coaches. For Hoang, the inconvenience of finding transportation herself makes bowling impractical—the team trains at Manor Bowl in San Leandro, 12 miles away from Oakland High School. “It’s so far away,” Hoang said.

Students will also have to pay for their own bowling lanes. Many bowling alleys in the area charge about $6 per person per game, plus $4 for shoe rentals, though weekly specials provide some discounts. Manor Bowl runs a program during the summer that allows young people to bowl for free. “Anybody can come here and bowl,” said Lajuana Young, a manager at Manor Bowl. But the program will not continue through the school year.

Hoang is playing volleyball this season, and is interested in swimming this spring if that sport is reinstated, but she still expects more from her school district. “They were irresponsible,” she said. “It’s disappointing that the school district couldn’t handle their money and they expect us to be fine with that.”

When asked which ones she would fund if she could only save two sports, Hoang rejected the choice outright. “Every sport means something else for a different person,” Hoang said. “I would have to pick them all.”

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