Tug of war over use of schools

January 15, 1995|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

A move to turn Howard County schools into community centers has led to a battle for turf between the school system and the county parks department.

Officials have been trying to resolve the details of an agreement on the issue for more than a year with little success. The crux of the dispute is over who controls scheduling of events at schools after regular school hours.

"If mutually agreeable arrangements cannot be reached voluntarily, then I feel the only solution will be to have a separate, independent committee set up by state law that would schedule public facilities," County Executive Charles I. Ecker warned School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey in a Dec. 28 letter.

The stakes in the conflict are growing because the county plans to build future elementary schools with bigger gyms, cafeterias and extra office space to accommodate recreation and parks programs such as night aerobic classes and adult basketball leagues. This is part of a national trend toward making maximum community use of school facilities.

"What we would like to do is better coordinate and maximize the use of the facilities," said Jeffrey Bourne, the county parks chief.

Susan Cook, who heads the school board, said she fears that recreation officials will take over sched- uling school space -- giving their activities priority over community programs such as Boy Scout meetings and neighborhood youth basketball games.

"In the past, recreation and parks wanted to take over scheduling," Ms. Cook said. "It's not an appropriate task for them."

The dispute also comes as Mr. Ecker seeks to tighten school spending and construction costs.

"On one hand, he's telling us to cut the cost of construction, cut the amount of money in the operating budget for maintenance. He turns around and says add in space for recreation. What does he want us to do? We can't do both," Ms. Cook said. "I find that very frustrating."

Ms. Cook and top-level school officials also fear that they eventually will have to foot the bill for constructing the larger facilities needed by parks department programs, although the parks department already has agreed to help finance construction.

In an interview, Mr. Ecker said he would make sure that the parks department paid the schools for the facilities it uses. But he said he could not guarantee such an arrangement after he left office. "I can't speak for someone else in the future, but I can speak for myself," he said.

The school system already has about a half-dozen schools designed to accommodate recreation programs -- among them, Rockburn, Elkridge, Pointers Run and Forest Ridge elementaries.

Those schools were built with gyms the size of those in middle schools, larger cafeterias and office space for a parks coordinator. They also have community activity rooms for a variety of purposes during and after school, such as day care programs and ballet, dance and cooking classes.

The recreation program wants the bigger spaces for adult basketball leagues, aerobics sessions and other health classes. The schools benefit from having bigger gyms and cafeterias, which permit them to handle enrollment growth better.

Among the schools that have a partnership with the parks department, Rockburn Elementary is the only one that is built on county parkland. It sits off Route 103 in 4,800-acre Rockburn Regional Park, which has miles of nature trails, baseball diamonds and football and soccer fields.

The parks department runs a number of programs there with high participation from parents and students. Among the most popular are before- and after-school care for kindergartners and older children.

Diane Mumford, Rockburn's assistant principal, said the recreation department's presence at the school has been beneficial and that there are few problems with scheduling.

"It makes sense to use a school, because it's very visible and it's more centered in the community," she said.

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