Stuck in graduation limbo

Uncertainty: Because Merriweather Post Pavilion books concerts until mid-April, schools must wait to plan commencements there.

March 22, 2000|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Brenda Katz's son graduated from Hammond High School last year, and Katz hoped she would never again have to go through the angst she went through then -- and she's not talking about his GPA.

As in several years before, Katz and other Howard County parents didn't find out until mid-April exactly what date in May or early June their children would graduate from high school. So they couldn't plan celebrations, couldn't help relatives get low airfares in advance, couldn't order announcements and invitations to send to friends and family until it was too late.

Unfortunately for Katz and parents of future seniors, nothing has changed.

It's the middle of March, and many Howard County parents still have no idea what day their children will walk across a stage, turn their tassels and become young adults.

It's like this every year, Katz said. And, unlike many surrounding school districts, it's been this way in Howard County for at least 10 years.

Because Merriweather Post Pavilion, an outdoor amphitheater with a capacity of 15,000, is the only site in the county large enough to hold high school graduations, the school district is pretty much locked into using that facility for commencements, which generally take place during the week of Memorial Day.

But because spring is prime time for money-making concerts, Merriweather holds that space open for big names like Aretha Franklin, Elton

John or Jimmy Buffett, just in case a promoter wants to come through town on those dates.

By April 15, if no one has signed up, then the school district can officially plan to hold graduations at Merriweather during Memorial Day week.

`In the business for profit'

"They're in the business for profit, and they've got concerts that are their priority," said school district spokeswoman Patti Caplan. "They have tried to work with us and block out that week for graduation. There's no other venue that will accommodate the number of people that Merriweather will hold. And parents seem to like that site. But the drawbacks are that we can't give parents a firm date."

That's a crucial drawback, said Joyce Pope, PTA president at Hammond High.

"That short lead time makes it difficult for parents who are trying to order graduation invitations or announcements, and it also makes it difficult for grandparents and other relatives who want to take advantage of discount airline rates, which need to be scheduled further in advance than this current schedule allows," Pope said.

Katz said that last year a student had relatives coming from Hawaii and, without knowing early enough when to arrive, they had to buy some of the most expensive plane tickets.

"It cost them a great hardship in terms of airfare," Katz said.

And Katz wasted $80 on graduation announcements last year because the tentative date got switched at the last minute when Merriweather officials scheduled an unexpected concert.

"These are legitimate problems," said school board member Stephen C. Bounds, noting that the board has instructed the district administrative staff to try to work with Merriweather to relieve the problem. "But when the only facility that's big enough to house it won't commit until April 15, I don't know what else we can do."

How it's done elsewhere

Other school districts, such as Baltimore, Montgomery and Carroll counties, use public venues such as Constitution Hall in Washington, or arena space at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and they don't seem to have these kinds of problems. Officials in those districts said graduation dates are set by the beginning of the school year.

Jean Parker, general manager of Merriweather, said it's not likely the policy will change any time soon.

"We are very empathetic to the concerns of the parents; they have relatives and friends that need to make arrangements and there are festivities that need to be scheduled," she said. "We do enjoy offering the venue as a site for many of the high school graduations. But there is a business aspect to this that makes it difficult to coordinate some of these community events."

Dates set

Parker said this year, because of a sparsity of early spring concerts, her office was able to let schools know sooner than usual that May 30, 31, June 1 and 2 will be available for graduations. Now it's up to the school board to arrange which schools will graduate on which dates.

"Most of the time, we aren't able to feel comfortable relinquishing that time frame before April 15," she said. "The Board of Education is very happy to have this arrangement. The majority of parents and students have had very pleasant experiences here. We've shown over the years our commitment. We've shown that we are a good corporate citizen, a good community citizen."

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