Nonprofits' protests force review of school fees

Groups object to plan to raise weekend rates

Carroll County

March 14, 2003|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Responding to church groups' complaints that proposed fee increases for using Carroll County public school buildings are unfair and discriminatory, school officials will take one more look at the suggested changes before enacting a new fee scale.

"We're going to review some correspondence we've received and talk with legal counsel," Superintendent Charles I. Ecker said. "We want to make sure what we do passes legal muster."

For about five months, the schools chief has been considering increasing the fees charged to community groups that use county school buildings for their programs. The new fee scale would require most groups - including nonprofit organizations - to pay the same amount.

The changes would eliminate a longstanding exemption that allowed nonprofit groups to pay nominal charges for the cost of custodians, heating and air conditioning.

Under the most recent draft, no fee would be charged to nonprofit groups using school facilities on weeknights during the school year and all nonprofits would pay the increased fees on weekends and anytime school is not in session. The new charges would be phased in over four years.

School officials say the new fees would only recover the cost of opening schools on weekends to outside groups, but many organizations have complained that the fees will drive community groups from schools or force them to end programs.

"In the new policy, something mysterious happens," the Rev. Bill Thomas of New Life Foursquare Gospel Church told school board members Wednesday night. "Rooms that cost nothing on a weekday for nonprofits now cost money" on a weekend.

Under the proposed regulations, annual fees for Thomas' church to use Westminster High School for Sunday services and religious education would climb from $7,000 to $24,000 by the time the rates are fully enacted.

Another church, Carroll Community Church, would pay $70,000 a year for weekly use of Liberty High School until it builds a church.

Pastor Joe Duke said he understands the difficulties of a budget deficit year but said it's unfair to transfer that burden to religious groups.

Edmund J. O'Meally said that is not the school system's intent.

"We have no desire to charge one penny more than our actual costs," he said. "On the other hand, figuring out how many units of heating and lighting one group uses is pretty difficult. The way we've done that, I think it's reasonable, but we're willing to discuss it with them further."

Because the fee scale is included in administrative regulations, school board approval is not required.

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