Room for debate seen in school-access issue

Buildings: Some characterize as unfair the county's policy on groups' after-hours use.

May 19, 2002|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

When the doors close behind the last backpacked child about 3 p.m. every day, Howard County's school buildings don't sit dim, empty and quiet, the way some might imagine.

All over the county, the buildings take on another life.

Companies meet in them. Speakers lecture in them. Volunteers offer lessons in arts and crafts, computers and English for speakers of other languages. Sports leagues, dance troupes, drama clubs and church groups meet. People exercise and square dance.

The community's converging on Howard's school buildings in evenings and on weekends seems like a win-win situation for schools and residents. Taxpayers have a place to hold recreational and other group activities. The schools make a little money by charging fees for use of the space.

But the pairing is proving increasingly uncomfortable.

As Howard school board members prepare to vote this week on proposed changes in the policy that governs the public's use of school facilities and fields, community members have spoken up about what they say is a lopsided deal.

They want decreased fees and easier, more equitable access. They point out that residents' tax dollars pay for the buildings, which would sit empty if the community were not using them.

On the other hand, an independent consultant determined in the fall that the school system is charging the community too little, and should be able to cover more of its operating costs.

"The consultant says we're subsidizing groups to the tune of $500,000," said the school system's community services director, Chuck Parvis, who approves and schedules groups that want to use the schools - some for free, others for a small fee. "The operating costs are about $1 million or so."

The consultant proposed that the school system - rather than increase the fees it charges current users - charge every user.

Parvis said his office probably will not recommend that the school board change its policy to include more fees for more groups. The only real change being proposed is to clearly note the schools' no-exceptions ban on food and drink, to avoid allergic reactions during the school day.

Inequities noted

That disappoints people such as Joanne Heckman, who has studied the schools' policy on building usage and found it unfair.

"Howard County's policy allows free rooms for some users, free rooms for other users under some conditions, paid use for yet other users, and some users are forbidden entirely," said Heckman, a parent and member of Vision - Howard County. Heckman studied the policy and discovered that some groups and schools were losing out. Because many after-school activities are contracted through and sponsored by PTAs, schools with bigger, more active parent organizations ended up with more opportunities than smaller, older schools. That difference was more pronounced because the school system's policy says that PTA-sponsored activities are not charged to use school facilities.

When Vision - Howard County studied after-school opportunities in the school district two years ago, it found that children at Clemens Crossing Elementary School could participate in homework club, dance, movies, friendship club, science activities, art, table ball, literature, recorder, book club, games, piano, crafts, Pokemon and Spanish. Bryant Woods Elementary, on the other hand, offered two homework clubs for children.

"The pattern is seen at all the elementary schools," Heckman said. "Twenty-six schools have PTA-sponsored programs, while the smallest schools, with the greatest percentage of low-income students, have only remedial programs funded by grants. Since PTA-sponsored programs are free, that means the school system is subsidizing fee-based programs at middle-class schools."

Parent Lynn Wiseman, who started a nonprofit organization called Focus on Kids, said the school system should not charge any group that provides services primarily for children - a position with which Heckman agrees.

"Community groups should be allowed to use the school buildings for civic, educational and recreational functions. We are taxpayers, and these buildings belong to us," Wiseman said. "If these activities are not aimed exclusively at children, the school system should charge a reasonable fee."

Other community members complained that the fees, although small, increase every year, to the point where they are no longer reasonable.

"We are a not-for-profit recreational group," said Melvin Adelson, a member of the Villagers Square Dance Club - a group of senior citizens that has been meeting in Howard's schools every second and fourth Friday for nearly 30 years. "Ever-increasing rental fees will eventually put us out of business."

Even for-profit groups have gripes - especially about having to gain PTA sponsorship to operate in school buildings.

Doug Howard, president of Drama Kids International, said that if he had known how troublesome Howard's policy would become, he never would have started his organization here two years ago.

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