For local sports council, a proposed `to-do' list for making system work

PLAYING AROUND

Howard At Play

February 17, 2002|By LOWELL E. SUNDERLAND

THAT SPORTS council, or forum for local amateur sports groups, we wrote about last month still hasn't met, which is a shame. But organizers say the response from youth sports leaders, in particular, has been good and that once sign-ups and infrastructure for this spring's outdoor sports are under control, expect the first meeting.

Here are some suggested agenda items for the volunteer council, which technically will be a subcommittee of the Recreation and Parks Advisory Board:

Agree on rhetoric to make clear from the get-go that you speak mainly for amateur sports groups in this county, not just for the rec and parks department. Politically, you'll need that space to operate effectively. Reason? The school system owns more facilities your members use than does rec-and-parks. If you're perceived merely as a political arm of rec-and-parks, your effectiveness will be marginalized, especially in public school circles.

Try to persuade the Department of Education to separate into one, clearly defined line item in its next maintenance budget how much money is allocated for playing field repair and maintenance.

No citizen can find a clue in public documentation about what's happening there now, although anecdotally, less and less has been spent in recent years. Last year, at the last minute, a relatively few thousand dollars that had been earmarked for seeding, fertilizing and better handling maybe one-third of school fields were eliminated. Penny wise, pound foolish, it says here.

School system money intended for fields is mushed into a budgetary "pocket" that includes roof repair, concrete maintenance, snow removal and who knows what else? What's wrong with adding a touch of clarity and accountability?

Quick, dig into that management consultant's recommendation late last year to shift the school system's two-person operation for scheduling community use of school facilities to the Department of Recreation and Parks.

You have until maybe mid-summer to make school board and administration leaders understand what's wrong with the current system. As we wrote last week, the sign-up process itself seems less a problem than the staffing, which at times is swamped by the numbers involved. Department of Education management is reviewing the issue, but the discussion, unfortunately, appears to be academics talking to academics with minimal input from anyone knowledgeable about sports locally.

Probably, your first public appearance should be at a school board hearing on that policy sometime late next month. Really, you need to say publicly what you say privately, that the system is broken and needs repair. You won't get a better shot any time soon.

The system of rec-and-parks booking school facilities for community groups apparently works nicely in three neighboring counties. Finding out why shouldn't be that hard.

One obvious question for you to mull: Why not computerize more of that sign-up operation? Countians can register for rec classes and teams via the Internet, and each year, more in this computer-hip county do just that.

Several youth sports groups locally are using computer-based registration; the 6,000-player Soccer Association of Columbia/Howard County was thrilled by its initial response, for example. The rec department has a scheduling and standings Web site that seems to function well.

In your heart, you know that computers are made for sorting out more than 18,000 separate requests for facilities each year at 69 schools and 270 fields. That's a numbers game, and crunching numbers - given good programming - is what computers do best. Betcha someone out there in computerland has programs that would simplify the scheduling quagmire.

Grapple with the touchy idea of youth sports groups contributing to or sharing some costs for the facilities they use. It's fascinating that two such groups, fed up with chewed-up fields, found enough money to help poverty-stricken rec-and-parks, which simply asked for the assistance, purchase two $1,500 "blankets" to help get new turf better established.

Philosophically, we strongly favor spreading field and gym expenses across all county taxpayers, just as we prefer that concept for public education, because athletics rate importantly in the context of educating young people. But what we hear now and then is that groups willing to donate a scoreboard here or a backboard there or field help another place are less than warmly received, especially by public school administration.

Why not articulate a policy and procedures that all can understand?

Is there merit to allocating fields and gyms on a more geographic basis than is done now? The argument against doing so is that Howard County has never done it that way because taxpayers pay for all schools, in particular, and that they should be open to all.

But the county was a lot smaller when that policy evolved. Some sports leaders are wondering if there's not a better way to proceed.

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

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