Youth basketball gets boxed out

Schedules: Sports programs lose long-reserved dates at school facilities when the schools decide, often on late notice, that they need them for their activities.

Howard At Play

January 28, 2001|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

With what they say is increasing frequency, county youth basketball programs are losing, sometimes on only a few days' notice, long-term commitments for use of school gyms because of school-related activities.

The abrupt cancellations force volunteer leaders to scramble for alternative facilities and to communicate with sometimes hundreds of players, upsetting in turn family schedules. Occasionally, games are lost or seasons lengthened unexpectedly.

A recent example: The Western Howard County Youth Basketball Association lost two weeks' worth of commitments from the school system, because West Friendship Elementary School booked a school-system-run cardiovascular fitness program that occupies the gym for two weeks.

"We lost games and practices, both on weeknights and weekends, on almost no notice," said Tim Fenlon, a youth sports leader who heads the basketball group. "I know principals have their jobs to do, but I just wish we could have some input. Why couldn't they run that program in, say, April or May, when we're not there?"

Chuck Fales, athletic director at Atholton High School and, for a decade, volunteer basketball commissioner of the Elkridge Youth Organization, said, "A school will call you and say it's having a band concert - and you're done.

"The school has the last say. Just a PTA meeting can shut you down. The result is, we have had to extend the season for another week or cancel those games."

Use of a gym isn't always cause for late cancellations. Several volunteer leaders say they have unexpectedly lost commitments because of activities booked into auditoriums or cafeterias adjoining the gyms.

All youth organizations use multiple schools, the largest as many as 18, and all agree that cooperation and empathy with their groups by principals varies from school to school.

But all leaders wonder why, with a school-year schedule that reflects locked-in holidays and days for teacher instruction, exams and more, other blocks of time cannot be committed for recurring or annual activities such as concerts, PTA meetings, shows and many other competing activities that function in schools.

Also, youth groups are supposed to request permits three months in advance, receiving their permits weeks ahead of time. But current policy lets individual schools trump those permits on as little as seven days' notice.

The school system often helps to arrange for use of other gyms and times when last-minute schedule changes cost the groups their commitments. But the disruptions are a hassle for all in the volunteer-run youth programs, whose existence relies on the availability of school facilities, which on weekends they pay for by the hour.

Such changes have long been a fact of life for winter sports organizers, who have no other options for gyms in Howard County. Leaders in several groups, however, particularly those outside Columbia, concur that the situation has worsened during the past couple of winters.

For one thing, all youth basketball organizations in the county, except for the Columbia Basketball Association, which has more than 800 players in about 80 teams, are growing in membership.

Chuck Parvis, the school system's community relations specialist and the man responsible for booking school space for all community uses, agrees that friction is increasing.

Parvis, called a "godsend" by one youth leader, uniformly gets high marks from youth leaders for being accessible and helpful. He attributes the problems to schools, which lack uniform programs or schedules for after-hours use, trying to increase their outreach to the communities they serve.

He also said he thinks that once-tolerant attitudes toward unexpected changes in routine have become more negative in many aspects of life, not just in youth sports.

Too, he said, because of the ages of most participants, youth organizations prefer and usually get gym time between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. on weeknights, with adult programs being booked later in those gyms.

"With all the schools and variables, the potential for problems is phenomenal," Parvis said. "Our No. 1 priority is education ... so I don't think we're out of line."

The weight of paper involved, shuffled by mail and fax, illustrates the pressure on Parvis and his assistant for gym time, not only from youth groups but from Scouting, churches, out-of-season sports groups, an array of adult activities and programs operated by the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.

Parvis estimated that in the current fiscal year, which started July 1, his office has processed more than 18,000 pieces of paper involving outside use of school facilities, including auditoriums, cafeterias, fields and gymnasiums.

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