School facilities use plan under multiple reviews

PLAYING AROUND

February 10, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

IT'S TOO early to predict what may transpire, but the increasingly fractious world of community-group use of school facilities is being quietly explored within the county Department of Education - and beyond.

This should be of particular interest to those in amateur sports. For they generate a significant portion of thousands of bookings each year for school fields, gyms, auditoriums and classrooms.

The school board asked in early winter that the policy for community use of schools be reviewed. That process began last month by a committee created by Chuck Parvis, the school system's long-time community services director.

Parvis and two others on his committee said the group decided that the policy, which hadn't been recast since the mid-1990s, needed little rehabilitation. That's not the end of this story, though. Not at all.

Parvis said he kept the committee narrowly focused on his assignment, the sign-up policy itself - nothing broader. But as Jim Carlan, veteran leader of the Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County and a committee participant, put it: "It's not so much the policy itself, it's what happens afterward."

And none of that got discussed.

Carlan has company, not the least of whom is another recreation elder, Gary J. Arthur, director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks. He was not a committee member. But asked about the topic in an interview, he called scheduling mix-ups involving schools "one of the biggest customer-service problems we have. ... They happen all the time."

And his department, be it via cooking classes, aerobic sessions, basketball for grownups, or programs for seniors, is the Department of Education's largest client.

In fairness to Parvis, with whom rec department leadership works daily, the problem often relates more to individual school administrators and PTAs than to policy. Parvis, often in the middle between school people and the community, downplays the friction, saying that given the soaring number of permits sought yearly, conflicts are both inevitable and minimal.

"The policy is probably workable," Arthur acknowledged, "but because of the numbers of facilities and users, [his office] doesn't have the capability of handling so many requests."

Which is the right place to introduce another out-of-public-view committee dealing with the same issue, one led by Deputy School Superintendent Sydney L. Cousin. His committee is weighing a consultant's recommendations from last fall that, among ways of improving public school management, included shifting Parvis' operation to rec and parks.

That's no done deal, however. Although as the consultant pointed out, examples of the concept working nicely aren't far away: in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery county governments. It's no done deal because bickering over facilities booking has been going on between the school system and rec-and-parks since at least the early 1990s.

Bettering community service isn't what it's about, either. Mainly, it's about "face," although everyone is too nice and politically correct to say so. The truth is, the entrenched school system operates all the gyms and far more fields in this county than the younger, smaller, poorer rec department.

Yet in the late 1970s, the consultant found, the county had 27 facilities available for community use; Parvis and a part-time assistant booked them. Today, the system has 69 schools and about 260 fields; Parvis and one full-time aide book them. Anyone sense some sort of management problem in there?

Cousin's committee seems to lack an important voice. No one from rec and parks is included, nor is anyone from any amateur sports group in this county. Parvis knows better; he included rec people and youth sports leaders on his panel.

Cousin hasn't returned a phone call asking to talk about his committee's work, which seems unlikely to reach the school board before September.

The school board is due Parvis' recommendations, after they're filtered through the school system's top management, in late March. Next will come a public hearing.

A few folks in amateur sports circles are beginning to murmur about speaking to board members, on the record, about far more than just how to sign up for school facilities. Maybe that hearing wouldn't be a bad place to start.

Better environment?

Few people missed the sobs and sadness surrounding a Massachusetts father being convicted last month in the killing of another hockey dad during a parental fight over a youth game.

That was an extreme, no-win case, but trying to counter negative behavior by adults is a business in recreation circles. Along those lines, the county Department of Recreation and Parks will be host for a Feb. 20 statewide conference called "Creating a Shield to Protect the Youth Sports Environment."

Interested? Call the rec department at 410-313-4706 before Wednesday. The 11 a.m.-3 p.m. session at rec headquarters,7120 Oakland Mills Road in Guilford, includes lunch.

Call the writer at 410-332-6525, or address e-mail to lowell.sunderland@baltsun.com.

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