School groups to be billed for utilities After-hours programs in Arundel to pay their heating costs

'Not a drastic-impact item'

Tight budget blamed, but Gary aide says move is inexcusable

August 04, 1998|By Kirsten Scharnberg | Kirsten Scharnberg,SUN STAFF

The memo was chilling.

For the coming school year in Anne Arundel County, heat and air conditioning are being cut for after-school events -- including athletic games and practices, drama rehearsals and productions, and academic club meetings.

Annapolis High School Principal Joyce Smith couldn't believe what she was reading: In a memo issued last Wednesday by the school board, all principals were informed that any groups using the county's 122 school buildings after the final bell would be responsible for paying utility costs.

"When we use our own building after 2 p.m., we will have to pay for heating and air conditioning," Smith wrote in a newsletter she sent to all her students' parents. "The drama club and the winter sports program boosters will have to determine if their programs can function without heat, and if not, how they can pay for heating basketball practices and games or drama rehearsals and performances."

During the winter, temperatures in school buildings will be allowed to sink to 55 degrees overnight. Groups needing to use schools in the evenings -- like students practicing for basketball games or the high school musical -- will have to raise funds to pay for heat.

And if they can't?

"I guess they have to wear their coats," Smith said, clearly exasperated and disappointed with the situation. "Who would have thought it would come to this?"

To put the cuts into perspective, Ralph Luther, the system's director of facilities management, said it costs about $10 an hour to heat an auditorium or gymnasium at most county schools.

That means a high school basketball team that practices two hours a day, five days a week, during a four-month season, would be charged about $1,600 for heat. And that doesn't include the nights they have to heat the gym and locker rooms for games.

A drama group performing "West Side Story," rehearsing five nights a week, three hours at a time for eight weeks, would be billed $1,200. And that doesn't include their bill for the three-night run of the spring musical.

"That's a lot of money to raise from flea markets or parking cars for city events," Smith said. "But we've always had a very supportive parent base, and we'll make this work somehow."

For nearly a decade, Anne Arundel schools have charged outside groups -- such as community athletic teams or parent-teacher associations -- for utilities, but this will be the first year school organizations will be charged.

The cost-cutting move -- expected to save the school system about $100,000 -- comes in the midst of an increasingly contentious and ugly budget war pitting the school board against County Executive John G. Gary and the County Council. Relations between the two have been chilly since February, when the schools requested a $501 million budget, $61 million more than the previous year. The county gave $454 million, a $14 million increase.

School officials have complained they have been short-changed to the point where it is nearly impossible to run the schools and have made controversial cuts -- including gifted and talented programs and some busing. Also, they will begin charging student athletes $50 participation fees per sport and musicians $10 to play in marching and concert bands.

Like a family gathered at the kitchen table determining which luxuries they can do without, school officials say they are doing what they can within their allotted budget.

"We did not enter into this lightly," said Ronald Beckett, the system's associate superintendent for business management. "We got less than what we felt we needed. So we have had to make some cuts."

Beckett dubbed the new policy a "nuisance cut, not a drastic-impact item" and said the schools could ask teams and organizations to meet right after school -- before the buildings start getting too cold.

"They'll just have to use some creative scheduling," he said. "It's not like those building get cold the minute the last bell sounds."

County officials -- openly fed up with playing political football with the school board -- aren't buying the lack-of-funds excuse.

"This is preposterous. If the school's [proposed] supplemental budget [of $6 million] goes through, they will be getting $20 million more than they got last year," said Lisa Ritter, Gary's spokeswoman. "In a year where inflation is less than six-tenths of 1 percent, and when they only have an additional 500 students, it is inexcusable they cannot get by on an extra $20 million without asking children to do without heat.

"I'd say the school board needs to stop telling parents where they are going to cut money, and start telling them where in the heck they are spending it," she said.

The politics of the budget battle aside, it is the students who are going to suffer, Smith said.

"To get to the point where you are worrying about how you are going to keep your kids warm while they rehearse for the high school musical -- that's very disappointing," the principal said. "I want to make it clear that I'm not blaming one side or the other. I just fear that somewhere in this conflict over the budget, we've lost sight of our overall purpose."

Pub Date: 8/04/98

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