Odds are against school fundraisers

Raffles, bingo, similar activities break some Md. systems' rules against games of chance

November 15, 2005|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

For years, the teddy bear raffle has been a highlight of the holiday bazaar at Towson's Stoneleigh Elementary. Seventy-five cents would buy a child the chance to go home with a stuffed animal, maybe one covered in colorful buttons or dressed as a firefighter or Cleopatra, and hundreds of dollars would be raised for teacher wish lists, after-school programs and other PTA endeavors.

But not this year - because of a longstanding ban on "games of chance" on Baltimore County school property.

"My head understands, but my heart is very disappointed," said organizer Lorri Schonfeld, who was told by the school's new principal that the bears could no longer be raffled off. Schonfeld found a way to include the teddy bears this year even though they won't be used to raise money because they are, in her words, "part of the magic."

Just about everyone agrees that school cafeterias should not be turned into smaller versions of Atlantic City. But many people are surprised to learn that the schoolhouse, according to the rules in Baltimore County and some other school districts, is no place for gaming - even amusements popular in church halls and retirement communities.

No fewer than three bingo events were canceled at county schools last year when parent volunteers were told about the restrictions.

The rule is "a little too strict," said Pam Solomon, past president of the PTA at Timber Grove Elementary in Owings Mills, where plans to allow kids and parents to play bingo for small prizes were called off.

"We were disappointed and the kids were disappointed that we canceled it," she said. "We felt nobody was risking something, so it was only going to be for fun."

The rule against games of chance is part of Baltimore County's policy on community use of school facilities, which was established in 1968 and last revised in 1986.

"It's hard to pick on teddy bears," said Robert Dubel, who was Baltimore County school superintendent during the 1970s and 1980s. But raffles are against the rules, regardless of the prize, he said.

Some can't help but point out that state lottery proceeds help to pay for education and that slot machines have been suggested as a way to sweeten the pot for school spending.

"It's kind of strange," said Michael C. Franklin, president of the PTA Council of Baltimore County. "We can fund education through the lottery, but we kind of frown on that at the local level."

Regulations vary

The policies differ slightly by school system. Harford and Howard county schools allow bingo or raffles on school grounds as long as organizers follow local gambling rules. School systems in Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Montgomery counties, as well as Baltimore City, don't permit "games of chance" on school property. In Prince George's, money raised through gambling cannot be used for any school program.

Enforcement in Baltimore County typically falls to principals, said school system spokesman Charles A. Herndon.

Stoneleigh's principal, Christine B. Warner, said she consulted her area superintendent and the school system's law office about the bear raffle when she learned about it this year, her first as principal of the school.

"My responsibility is to make sure we're following policy and rules," Warner said.

Schonfeld said the rule was brought to her attention last year, so she tried to find a way to abide by it, modifying the procedure for raising money with teddy bears. Last year, children bought a candy stick and received a raffle ticket as a bonus.

She made similar arrangements for raffles from the "prize opportunity" table, filled with autographed sports memorabilia and items more attractive to adults. A buyer of a 50-cent pencil got a free ticket.

Reference materials from the National PTA warn school chapters to check local laws and school system policies before organizing games of chance. In Baltimore County, gaming regulations restrict raffles to certain organizations, generally charities, including PTA groups.

Last year, information about the school system's gambling policy spread by word of mouth, prompting several short-notice cancellations. At Pikesville's Sudbrook Magnet Middle School, the PTA had planned a bingo night in the school cafeteria as a family get-together, just as it had the previous year.

A $5 admission charge was to have paid for pizza and soda, said PTA President Kelly Boyle, and the plan was for kids to win small donated prizes. However, school administrators told her it wouldn't pass muster.

News from that PTA spread to its counterparts at Timber Grove Elementary, and bingo night at the school was canceled a week before it was scheduled to take place. PTA leaders tried to refashion the fundraiser as a family activity, but eventually they called it off.

The school had held bingo nights before, said Timber Grove Principal Kim Bunch, but at the Hannah More School, a private school for children with learning or emotional disabilities - not on county school property.

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